Ethic Quiz: The Jean Valjean Rule

There are no good pictures of Jean stealing a loaf of bread, but here's Yogi Bear stealing a picnic basket...

There are no good pictures of Jean stealing a loaf of bread, but here’s Yogi Bear stealing a picnic basket…

News from Italy, via the BBC:

Judges overturned a theft conviction against Roman Ostriakov after he stole cheese and sausages worth €4.07 (£3; $4.50) from a supermarket.Mr Ostriakov, a homeless man of Ukrainian background, had taken the food “in the face of the immediate and essential need for nourishment”, the court of cassation decided.

Therefore it was not a crime, it said.

A fellow customer informed the store’s security in 2011, when Mr Ostriakov attempted to leave a Genoa supermarket with two pieces of cheese and a packet of sausages in his pocket but paid only for breadsticks.

In 2015, Mr Ostriakov was convicted of theft and sentenced to six months in jail and a €100 fine.

For the judges, the “right to survival prevails over property”, said an op-ed in La Stampa newspaper (in Italian).

In times of economic hardship, the court of cassation’s judgement “reminds everyone that in a civilised country not even the worst of men should starve”.

An opinion piece in Corriere Della Sera says statistics suggest 615 people are added to the ranks of the poor in Italy every day – it was “unthinkable that the law should not take note of reality”.

It criticised the fact that a case concerning the taking of goods worth under €5 went through three rounds in the courts before being thrown out.

The “historic” ruling is “right and pertinent”, said – and derives from a concept that “informed the Western world for centuries – it is called humanity”.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz for today, involving  the eternal confusion between law and ethics::

Never mind legal: was this an ethical ruling?

This recent story was raised on the listserv for the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers, of which I am a member. With one exception, the reaction was a series of jokes about, among other things, the Donner Party, indicating that the legal ethicists thought the opinion was laughable, because it was ridiculous.

The ruling is ridiculous, and thus incompetent and unethical, because it is a legal ruling that essentially undermines the rule of law with an over-broad precedent. The case highlights the importance of prosecutorial discretion. This case never should have been brought to court; indeed, it should never have involved the police. The time for “humanity,” as in empathy, pity, kindness, compassion, proportion, charity and forgiveness, to be expressed was before the formal justice system got involved. The  grocer should have given the man a break.  A bystander or the police should have paid the $4.50 for him. The case never should have taken five years to resolve: how much more money did the process itself waste? Everyone who allowed such a trivial crime by a homeless man get to the point where an Italian court felt it had to issue a ringing endorsement of theft should hide their faces in shame.

The ruling is historic, all right: historically foolish. It is unenforceable, of course. How does someone prove he is hungry? If he is hungry, does that justify stealing caviar and steak, as well as sausage and breadsticks? How hungry does he have to be? Was there any proof that the defendant would have died if he didn’t steal a sausage?  How much can a hungry person steal? One sausage? Seven? Every sausage? What if the food stolen causes someone else to go hungry?

Apparently it doesn’t matter why the thief  is hungry, just that he is. Would this apply to a banker who was temporarily lacking access to funds, and had the munchies? A junkie who habitually spent every penny on drugs?  Does the new rule apply only to food? What ir a hungry person steals a diamond necklace or a car, and sells them to buy food? The “right to survival prevails over property” would seem to justify homeless people breaking into my house for shelter if it’s sufficiently cold outside.

Can violent means be used for these legal thefts? How about threats? Guns? Knives? Dynamite vests?

The statement that it is “unthinkable that the law should not take note of reality” is ironic, because the reality is that laws have to be predictable, applied equally to everyone, and not  suspended by the desires and needs of individuals. The reality is that the principle articulated by the Italian court is an endorsement of anarchy, confusion and a chaos.

That makes the opinion incompetent and irresponsible, no matter how compassionately it was intended. It’s embarrassing, in fact.

I would love to see this ruling raised in a Presidential debate. Bernie Sanders and his supporters, I am sure, would applaud it, which alone disqualifies him for leadership, and them as responsible and informed citizens.

37 thoughts on “Ethic Quiz: The Jean Valjean Rule

    • Bravo: great find.

      Of course, the question in the quiz is whether the ruling is ethical, not whether it is “ethical to steal to eat.” That statement is also far too general and sweeping—I wonder if the cartoonist knows that?

  1. As per usual, Europe got it wrong. Which is more humane, give a guy $4.50 for a single meal or give him a place to live for 6 months, plus 3 squares a day (prison fare may not be appetizing but it is nutritious), what the Army used to refer to as “3 hots and a cot”? I know which way I’d go.

        • There’s no social “safety net” in the U.S? Are you kidding? What city doesn’t have a homeless shelter or a Salvation Army soup kitchen, or whatever you want to call it? If you’re broke in this country your worries are over.

          • I didn’t say there is not a safety net in the U.S , what I said is that there are hardly any “soup” kitchens or places for the homeless or poor to go to get something to eat. Washington DC has one, DC Central Kitchen, that has to serve over 80 homeless shelters and all the homeless in the City.

            Also in Washington DC as more people have moved back into the city they have fought the opening, or even the existence of already operating shelters or privately run church kitchens.

            In Fairfax County Virginia there isn’t even one so the churches have stepped in . Ten years ago the county made it illegal for people to donate cooked food to the church run kitchens which has made their jobs more difficult.

            • Re FFX County — I did NOT know that! Hmmm. My church (where I also work) donates food all of the time to a variety of providers, but mostly to food banks. I was totally unaware of the cooked food restrictions, though.

  2. Spot on reasoning, Jack: the law tried to do the job of compassion, and diminished itself in the process. “Our solution to poverty is… to make it legal for poor people to steal things! I mean, they deserve it, right? What other choice to do we have? [rhetorical]” Slush-for-brains.

    There’s an angle the people involved don’t seem to have considered: I’m reminded of a quote from A Night at the Opera by that famous fake Italian, Chico Marx, when the stowaways are about to venture aboveboard to find food: “If they arrest us, they gotta feed us.”

    That six month sentence is already full of free food, and possibly even (I’m unfamiliar with Italian prison policy) the opportunity to learn some trade skills (at the possible cost of an unacceptably dangerous environment, which should be fixed anyway). I’m not sure whether they actually expected a homeless person to pay the fine. Fines for petty theft in general seem unlikely to be payable.

    Also, Javert’s Italian counterpart would probably join the revolution to overthrow the government at this point.

  3. I’m imagining the extension of this idea. Particularly, the homeless that threaten subway riders if they don’t receive a “donation”. Do Italian shopkeepers now have demands for food by “the hungry”. What is the limit? Truffles and champagne (good cartoon Anonymous Coward ) is off limits, but prosciutto and gluten free bread is not? The hungry can wander from store to store expecting to be fed? The ruling merely feels good. Jean Valjean was given a given a gift by Bishop Myriel of his freedom and the silver. More importantly he was challenged to do good with his life and strove to live up to that challenge. It wasn’t simply a handout but a transformative moment for Valjean. I’m not foreseeing a transformative effect for Mr. Ostriakov. Well, other than to expect to be able to steal with impunity.

  4. Damn, Mr. Ostriakov should have moved to America and he’d get food stamps in a pinch. Of course he might be tempted to sell them under the table so he could buy some vodka or tokay.

  5. For a moment there I imagined an only-in-Italy musical scene in the courtroom:
    (1) cas·sa·tion
    an informal instrumental composition of the 18th century, similar to a divertimento and originally often for outdoor performance.

    And this (real?) one had its amusement value as well, imagining a SCOTUS working in this manner:
    (2) Courts of cassation do not re-examine the facts of a case, they are only competent for verifying the interpretation of the law. For this, they are appellate courts of the highest instance.

  6. “Bernie Sanders and his supporters, I am sure, would applaud it, which alone disqualifies him for leadership, and them as responsible and informed citizens.” Did you mean “…and them as IRresponsible and MISinformed citizens”?

    Also, as a thinking liberal (please spare the the oxymoron jokes), I see exactly why the judge’s decision was unethical. Jack is quite right in saying that the case should never have gotten as far as it did. The shop owner SHOULD have let it go.

    Compassion SHOULD begin and exist at the end of your own nose. Not at the judge’s gavel.

    • Where’s the line? Maybe this guy had been feasting in this store for weeks or months? Who’s to say when a merchant is supposed to sua sponte provide for the needs of the poor? When is Jack supposed to let a law firm or bar association not pay his bill or reimburse him for his expenses? “Oh Jack, it’s just the Bumfuck County Bar. They’re kinda broke right now. They’ll pay you when the get around to it. Or you know what, just let it go. You can afford it. They meant to pay you.”

      • Obviously that is up to individual personal judgment. And obviously (seriously, are you just trying to start an argument?) there is a spectrum of judgment on these types of things. When Jack provides his services to a bar association or whatever, there is an explicit contract. You can argue that there is an implied contract between the shop keeper and his customers, but go ahead and pick those nits if you must. And equally obviously, if this homeless person had been making the shop his personal complimentary smorgasbord, that might be different. If this had been the case, I would have hoped that the judge would have mentioned it and taken it into account.

        I personally know of a homeless man who has very naturally ingratiated himself (because he is such a nice man) with a particular Starbucks where they give him leftovers all the time. And this was before Starbucks announced that they are actually going to start a program of doing just that, eventually nationwide.

        No one is obliged to ruin their business by supporting the poor. But some actually seem to be just fine with helping them. And frankly, if I know that a shop is being generous to the needy, I am more likely to patronize that shop. Win. Win. Win.

        • Not trying to pick an argument or nits. You said “the shop owner SHOULD have let it go.” That’s a lot different from a Starbucks giving away left overs, which, presumably, in so far as they are leftovers, would have otherwise been thrown in the trash. I just don’t like imperatives that involve other people’s money, Patrice.

          • OK, “should” was perhaps the wrong word. But it also was not meant as an imperative, but instead as a moral and/or ethical judgment. That’s where I was wrong. “Judge not…” On the other hand, I am a bleeding-heart liberal with socialistic ideals. On the other other hand, as I wrote, no one is — nor should they be — obliged to damage their livelihood to support the poor, especially since small businesses usually have a narrower margin of profit and their owners are often struggling themselves.

            Being a liberal does not necessarily imply lack of understanding or compassion for the marketplace.

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