The Great Chicken Sandwich Caper, Safeway and the Duty to Think

In the updated American version, Gene Valjean steals two chicken sandwiches for his starving and pregnant wife, and he is hounded by the relentless Safeway manager, Fred Javert.

[ Update (11/2/2011): Safeway has dropped the charges stemming from this incident, and rescinded its one year ban of the Leszczynskis. None of the commentary on the story is affected by this development. The damage is done, including to Safeway’s image. The fact that the grocery chain decided not to do any more damage, and took a week to decide it, is not anything to admire.]

Periodically Ethics Alarms breaks into a debate over whether prosecutorial discretion is fair and just. When appropriate, it is fair and just, and here is an example of the kind of injustice that occurs when the law is enforced without concern for proportion, intent, or common sense.

The villain in this case was not a prosecutor, however, but a Safeway manager.

Nicole Leszczynski, who is 30-weeks pregnant, her husband Marcin, and daughter Zophia were shopping at a Hawaii Safeway where they bought about $50 worth of groceries. During their shopping, Nicole began feeling faint, and ate two chicken sandwiches, a deal at only $5.  The couple forgot about  the sandwiches when they checked out their other items, however. (Full disclosure: I’ve done this. With a banana.) The store detained them and refused to accept payment. Then the store manager called the police, and they were placed under arrest for larceny.

In accordance with police policy when both parents are arrested, 3-year-old Zophia was taken by Child Protective Services, and not returned to the Leszczynskis until the next day.

By what possible  reasoning process could it have made sense—to anyone, from the manager to police, to subject a family, including a pregnant woman and young child, to this ordeal as the result of the failure to pay for two chicken sandwiches? Even if the family had been planning a brazen chicken sandwich heist all along, the sensible, logical, reasonable and caring response would be to give them the benefit of the doubt. Is Safeway concerned about a possible rash of sandwich thefts? Did they need to make an example of someone, and decided on the Leszczynskis?

Ethical decision-making is often difficult, but it shouldn’t be difficult in a situation like this. Any thought at all, other than an undifferentiated no-tolerance reflex, should yield the right answer. This is a sub-set of the duty of competence: the duty to think.

Upon inexcusably delayed reflection, Safeway issued this statement:

“It appears we may not have handled this matter in the best possible way and we are taking the situation seriously.”

Ya think???

39 thoughts on “The Great Chicken Sandwich Caper, Safeway and the Duty to Think

  1. Ah! So THAT’S who Javert is. He must have really gotten off to a bad start that morning! Either that, or he’s one of these loud-mouthed, arrogant jerks that seem to comprise the ranks of store managers to about 50% of the total. Having worked in the field for Pepsi for about 12 years, I know the breed! This caper, however, seems to take it to an entirely new level. Not knowing the character of the shoppers, I might have made an allowance had they been a previous bother in this regard before. But that cut-and-dried statement from the management on the incident- the predictable non-apology that arrogant authority often resorts to these days- indicates otherwise. Certainly, that child will never forget the day she was carted off to a strange place when her parents were arrested, not knowing if she’d ever see them again.

  2. I know people who have had their reputations ruined by cops and others who were following “procedure,” only to have charges dropped later.

    Jack’s on the money here – sometimes, ethical decisions are those that aren’t in accordance with policy/protocol. The problem is that by engaging in said ethical decision making and eschewing said policies and protocols, they tend to run afoul of OTHER policies/protocols – and can end up as a defendant themselves.

    I put nonsense like this squarely on the shoulders of those who believe we can legislate the universe into being fair. And if we don’t have time to legislate it that way, we’ll LITIGATE it into submission, b’Gawd…

  3. I agree this was mishandled. Safeway has (or used to have) a training program for employees that emphasizes courtesy, fairness and respect to customers. This includes the supposition that in questionable issues, the customer be given benefit of the doubt. An employee should have simply asked the couple if they paid for the sandwich (or sandwiches, it was one in earlier stories, or should it be included in the bill, while they were still in the store,

          • I loved that movie because the ski scenes were filmed at SnoBird in Utah where I was growing up at the time. I spent every weekend during winter there and knew every trail so precisely that when I watched the movie, I was just floored at how they edited it together. One scene he’s at the top of the tram run, next he’s near the bottom, cut to him somewhere in the middle, over to a different mountain…. But seriously. Great movie. “I WANT MY 2 DOLLARS!”

  4. We should close all Safeway stores and have them run the Government. We would have a balanced budget in no time. As a father of a 2 year old, I would have lost it and probably would still be in jail today. Unfortunately, common sense is hard to learn.

  5. I was a single, working mother when my son was a toddler. After work, I would often pick my son up from school and head directly to Whole Foods, where we would shop for the evening’s groceries. My son would munch on a piece of fruit or vegetable (thoughtfully washed by a Whole Foods employee for him) as we shopped and we would pay for the item when we checked out. A couple of times we got into the car before realizing we had forgotten to pay for the item and went back in to pay. We may have forgotten on occasion. Certainly not deliberately. I don’t know anyone who cannot retell a similar story. I also don’t know anyone who has been arrested and/or had their child taken by Child Protective Services as a result of such an honest mistake. The Safeway employee(s) and police officer(s) involved are all guilty of lack of judgement taken to an absurd level. I don’t know if there is a legal basis for lawsuit, but hope there is. Since there is no Safeway near me, I can’t boycott the store – but I would never shop in one given the opportunity!

  6. When Safeway overcharges me I bring it to their attention and allow them to correct their error, I don’t call the police and ask that they arrest the cashier and manager for theft. Perhaps we should. Safeway needs to stop this police action, make amends, drop the charges and stop exacerbating this ordeal for this family. Safeway’s actions, and lack thereof, after the fact are just as unconscionable as the egregious decision making that launched this ordeal for this family.

  7. The children who were raised in a zero tolerance school environment where kids are expelled and the police are called to deal with a stray, forgotten Advil tablet in a purse, or a Big Bird key ring with nail clippers on it are now growing up and being loosed on society. Why should we expect them to behave any differently? Why should we expect them to think?

  8. Should every single shoplifter who gets caught in the act of stealing be allowed to say they forgot to pay and then agree to pay to avoid arrest? If so, everybody who is falling on hard times in America will probably be shoplifting at Safeway.

    Oh and LOL @ Valerie Jayne Baker-Strand’s comment that Hawaii people are racist against white people. Oh you mean the white people who stole the Hawaiian lands away from the Native Hawaiians and had the nerve to call Hawaiians barbarians? Oh, those white people. Okay.

    • 1. Who is proposing that? The standard should be common sense evaluations of each particular circumstance. Was the woman pregnant? Yes. Do pregnant women suffer from metabolic swings requiring nutrition? Yes. Is the couple’s explanation reasonable and plausible? Yes. Does it make sense that they would try to steal $5 worth of sandwiches while buying 50 bucks of groceries? No. On the other hand, someone who tries to leave a store with a necklace in her handbag without paying for anything does not have such a plausible explanation, does she? This isn’t really that hard. The distinctions can be made.
      2. So you are not debating whether there is rampant racism in Hawaii, just arguing that racism is justified? How nice. Racism is never justified: it’s vindictive, illogical and ignorant. That family didn’t steal the islands or call anyone barbarians….if racism had anything to do with how they were treated, which I doubt. Never presume racism when simple idiocy offers a complete explanation.

  9. Pingback: Pregnant mom busted for a sandwich!?! / HLN « Protective Mothers' Alliance International: The Guardian of Truth Blog

  10. There is NO excuse for ever eating food in a grocery store without paying first. That fact that you admit that you’ve done this and forgotten to pay shows you that people inevitably forget, which is why they shouldn’t do it. I used to work in retail a long, long time ago and security would always catch shoplifters and I’d hear the usual excuse “I didn’t mean to” or “I forgot I had it.” ALL thieves always have an excuse and are always “so embarrassed”–when they get caught.

    • Let’s count the way you are dead wrong:
      1. No excuse? I’d say a pregnant woman feeling ill is a damn good excuse.
      2. “inevitably”? It’s not inevitable at all.
      3. Your comments about actual shoplifters are irrelevant applied to people who obviously were not, to anyone willing to apply any judment at all.

      • Like Jack was saying before,if the item was in their pocket,purse or hidden under their clothes then it’s pretty obvious it was shop lifting. Anyone one else could be given the benefit of the doubt particularly those who have no prior record. Each case should be handled individually.

  11. Intent is so important. The wrappers were in their cart, in plain view. An observant cashier could have noticed them and asked them to pay. Once I accidentally walked out of the store with paper towels under the cart – got distracted and forgot they were there. When I started loading the car I noticed them and returned to pay. Had I been arrested for my oversight, that would have been ridiculous. Others have similar stories that don’t necessarily involve eating. Let’s not confuse these two issues: 1) the manners of munching something you intend to buy – is it appropriate? and 2) whether this couple was shoplifting. The only one that really matters is whether they were shoplifting, to which the obvious answer is “no.” Whether or not you think munching is good manners is irrelevant, since it is common practice and not an arrestable offense.

    • And incidentally, my husband spent seven years as a retail manager at three different big box chains, and he says Safeway must have very poor protocol. Every store in which he has ever worked has had a minimum $ amount required for police to be called. Human aspect aside, how on earth could $5 in sandwiches be worth their while to prosecute?

  12. I have worked for this company for 31 years.
    I feel that they just dont care.
    I refuse to shop there and I am ashamed that I get thier paycheques.
    I have to work there for the sake of my family and bills.
    They fire employies for the stupidist errors while other indescressions go un-noticed.
    Its all about who you know and hoe they like you. its total favoritisim and I think they require a total overhall.

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