Five year ago, Roman Ostriakov, a homeless Ukrainian living in Italy, attempted to steal cheese and sausages worth $4.50 (€4.07). Before he could leave the supermarket, though, Ostriakov was caught and convicted of theft. He was ordered to pay a fine of $115 (€100) and spend six months in jail.
But Italy’s supreme court has overturned the conviction, writing:
The condition of the defendant and the circumstances in which the merchandise theft took place prove that he took possession of that small amount of food in the face of the immediate and essential need for nourishment, acting therefore in a state of need.
“For the judges, the right to survival has prevailed over the right to property,” says Massimo Gramellini, an editor of the Italian newspaper La Stampa. He adds that in America this would be “blasphemy.”
Gramellini is partially right. While the court was right to show mercy to Ostriakov, they’ve essentially set of precedent for legalized theft. While it may seem compassionate for the judges to allow those in need to have access to other people’s property, the result is likely to lead to greater harm of the poor.
The ruling leaves too many questions unanswered. Who gets to determine how much food can be taken and how often? Can a modern day Jean Valjean steal a week’s worth of food for his hungry family? Can he repeatedly return to the same store to take what he needs?
When the public is unclear about such questions and about when the law will protect them, they are likely to overreact in defense of their property.
Consider the case of Ostriakov. He was in the store buying breadsticks, when a customer noticed that he had stolen the other items. But now he — and other homeless people — will likely not be allowed in stores at all. Why would storeowners allow the poor to even enter their businesses when they can take what they want without repercussions?
The change in the law provides perverse incentives for the poor and needy. Before, they may have stolen out of sheer necessity — and received mercy and leniency for their crime. Now, they may feel they are entitled to other people’s property. Like Karl Marx they may decide the rule should be, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
What the poor truly need is not a pass to steal but an opportunity to earn their own living. As the Apostle Paul said, “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (1 Thess. 3:10). Men like Ostriakov need help finding ways to work so that they can take care of themselves. And if they can’t, society as a whole — not individual shopkeepers — should provide the safety net that catches them when they slip into a “state of need.”