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 Italiaglobale.it – 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.