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Stealing Food if You’re in Need Is Not a Crime, Italian Court Finds

The decision seemed particularly unusual in contrast to the U.S. criminal justice system’s response to crimes of necessity.

A homless person sleeps outside the Termini train station on November 18, 2014 in Rome. AFP PHOTO / TIZIANA FABI        (Photo credit should read TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)
A homless person sleeps outside the Termini train station on November 18, 2014 in Rome. AFP PHOTO / TIZIANA FABI (Photo credit should read TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)

Roman Ostriakov, 36, couldn’t afford anything to eat, so he stole less than $5 worth of cheese and sausage from a supermarket in Genoa, Italy, in 2011. He was caught, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to pay a fine of 100 euros and serve six months in prison. An appeals court upheld the decision.

This week, Ostriakov’s fate changed. Italy’s highest court, the Supreme Court of Cassation, issued a broad ruling that the theft of essential sustenance out of dire necessity is not a crime — even though Ostriakov had originally tried to overturn the conviction as an “attempted” theft, since he never made it out of the store with food, rather than argue that he had been in the right all along.

In a front-page opinion piece, Italian newspaper La Stampa lauded the court’s endorsement of the view that the “right to survival prevails over property.”

The decision, which the Telegraph called “unusual,” seemed particularly so in contrast to the U.S. criminal justice system’s response to crimes of necessity.

Alec Karakatsanis — a former Washington, D.C., public defender and co-founder of Equal Justice Under Law, a nonprofit that fights inequality in the U.S. legal system — told Foreign Policy that Ostriakov’s appeal brought to mind the case of Michael Riggs, who stole vitamins from a California grocery store.

Riggs, who took the pills in what California’s Court of Appeals said was “a petty theft motivated by homelessness and hunger,” received a 25-year sentence under the state’s three-strikes law. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up the case. Only one justice voted to hear the appeal.

“It’s incredible to me that American courts think of the crime as the homeless person stealing, not as the fact that we live in a society where there are hundreds of thousands of homeless people,” Karakatsanis said.

The Italian court’s decision was an uncommon one, he said, because it reflected a line of moral logic that held the potential to challenge structural assumptions.

“There’s something fundamentally threatening to the capitalist economic order in a ruling like this — the idea that a person is not personally responsible for an action they take out of economic necessity — because capitalism is based on creating that necessity for millions of people around the world,” he said.

In the United States and countries with similar criminal justice systems, in which most cases never go to trial, such rulings are also uncommon for procedural reasons.

“In America, a lot of these cases get disposed of either through a dismissal, or more likely, the person will just take a guilty plea right away,” Karakatsanis said. “Very, very rarely would an appellate court in the United States ever get to rule on a case like this.”

Photo credit: TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images

Benjamin Soloway is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. @bsoloway

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