Stealing food not a crime if you really need it, Italian court rules

A homeless man has been acquitted of theft in Italy after the country's high court ruled that Roman Ostriakov stole out of necessity.

Luca Bruno/AP
The bed of a homeless person is placed next to a painting of the Euro symbol, in Milan. Italy's high court threw out the conviction of a homeless man convicted of stealing around $4.50 worth of food because the court determined that he only stole what he needed for essential nourishment.

Roman Ostriakov, a homeless man who stole €4.07 ($4.50) worth of cheese and sausage, is not a thief, Italy’s highest court of appeal ruled Monday.

The Supreme Court of Cassation threw out Mr. Ostriakov’s theft conviction after a trial court sentenced him to six months in jail and a €100 ($115) fine in February 2015. The Ukrainian native and his lawyers only sought a more lenient sentence because he was unable to pay the hefty fine.

But the court went even further, ruling that Ostriakov’s action in 2011 “does not constitute a crime” because he stole a small amount of food out of desperation. 

“The condition of the accused and the circumstances in which he obtained the merchandise show that he had taken the little amount of food he needed to overcome his immediate and essential requirement for nourishment,” the court ruled in a statement. “People should not be punished if, forced by need, they steal small quantities of food in order to meet the basic requirement of feeding themselves.”

Although decisions of the Court of Cassation do not create binding precedents for lower courts to follow like those of the US Supreme Court, Maurizio Bellacosa, a professor of criminal law at Luiss University in Rome, tells The New York Times that the ruling will still have significance. The court applied the Italian legal doctrine “Ad impossibilia nemo tenetur,” meaning, “No one is expected to do the impossible.” 

But because the “state of necessity” argument is rarely applied in shoplifting cases, says Mr. Bellacosa, the decision in the Ostriakov case “is a new principle, and it might lead to a more frequent application of the state of necessity linked to poverty situations.” 

Some supporters of the ruling hope Ostriakov’s case will shed light on the extreme poverty and homelessness in Italy. 

In 2015, more than one in four Italians lived at or near the poverty level, as unemployment lingered around 13 percent, according to reports from the humanitarian organization Caritas Europa. In 2013, the statistics agency ISTAT told Reuters that relative poverty in Italy (defined as a family of two living on about $1,139 a month) was at 12.7 percent, the highest level since the agency began tracking the data in 1997. And according to the Corriere Della Sera newspaper, 615 Italians are added “to the ranks of the poor” every day. 

This court ruling is in sharp contrast with the way many communities treat the hunger in the United States. As of 2014, 31 cities had restricted, or were moving to restrict, sharing food with the homeless. In Ft. Lauderdale, for example, a 90-year-old man who violated a citywide law against feeding the homeless faced 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. Contrary to what legislators in these cities purport, food-sharing does not perpetuate homelessness, says the US National Coalition for the Homeless.

Back in Italy, the La Stampa newspaper praised the ruling in a front page editorial: “The court’s decision reminds us all that in a civilised country no one should be allowed to die of hunger.”

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