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  • H. Linden (law student)

Should stealing food to survive be considered a crime? (a 1L student perspective)

When you ask anyone to give you an example of a crime, you might find that for the most part you will get standard answers, like murder or stealing. Moral blameworthiness is always part of the conversation. This makes it difficult to challenge the idea that, for example, stealing, is always wrong and to propose that it might not always be so bad: not every situation of stealing may invoke moral blameworthiness. Indeed, stealing might be justified in certain situations. This raises the question of whether the conduct ought to be excusable in law in these exigent circumstances.

Consider the situation where an accused has stolen some food because he or she felt it was necessary due to the severity of his or her hunger or even due to being malnourished.

There are many examples of imprisonment in such circumstances. For example, in 2015, there was a decision in the UK that held a woman guilty for stealing a few Mars bars, (the cheapest food she could find in the store), after she claimed that she had not eaten in days. This decision was made regardless of the economic peril experienced by the defendant. The court said “we do not really accept you go into a store and steal just for being hungry”. The defendant was fined £328.75 (around $550 CAD) See:

But is this outcome principled? Should prosecution, fines, and imprisonment be inflicted on people who steal small amount of food when they genuinely need it to function or not starve?

As a matter of ethics and logic it is hard to conceive that an individual in necessitous situations should be criminally responsible for stealing food. First of all, inflicting a fine upon a person on the basis that they attempted to steal food with a motive to not starve is, cruel and ironic. If a person could not afford food how could they afford a fine? Secondly, such measures would probably only set the individual further back in their progressive attempts to better their financial situations through finding work and would effectively create a more desperate situation by elongating the time spent out of work, starving. Third, criminal acts born of necessity surely should not result in such sanctions. When we think of criminal acts, we assess it in terms of the required standards of the guilty act accompanied by a guilty mind. How can one possess a guilty mind when the physical act of the crime is necessitated by dire health or imminent death. Certainly the law of necessity in common law might afford a defence, but the case reports are full of convictions for impoverished accuseds, and undoubtedly guilt pleas are the most common outcome.

A 2016 Supreme Court decision in Italy initiates new principles that could provide insight for other jurisdictions. In overturning a conviction of theft implemented because a starving man attempted to steal a sausage and cheese from a supermarket, the court ruled that stealing is not a crime when small amounts of food are taken in desperate need (See: In the Supreme Court’s ruling, they alluded to important facts such as the toll of the economic crisis on Italy’s citizens and the desperate condition of the defendant who was in dire need of nourishment. Those who praise this decision have said that in effect, the supreme court ruled that a petty theft of food motivated by hunger is not comparable to an act of delinquency.

People suffer from economic setbacks in all societies. In Canada, 1 in 7 people live in poverty ( Poverty doesn’t always hunger, but the correlation between poverty and hunger is undeniable. Canada’s laws should consider the individual’s economic situation, and true need of nourishment, instead of implementing a criminal sanction. It should not be left to courts to mete out empathy on ad hoc basis. Parliament should draft protections for Canada's most impoverished persons. The consideration of an individual’s economic situation is a factor that should weigh in sentencing and the conception of criminal guilt. A precisely drafted law could ensure mercy is part of the criminal justice system. The case is even more compelling when once considers the vulnerable groups that are most susceptible to poverty and hunger such as persons with disabilities, single parents, the elderly, youth, and racialized persons.

The arguments illuminated in the following article are apt in this context: Dominique Mosbergen writes about people in the UK that are on social benefits to survive and how there is punitive rhetoric flowing from politicians and the press suggesting that those who are destitute have chosen to live that lifestyle. However, real and significant impacts contribute to the condition of being destitute and the systemic injustice compounds the problems: benefit delays, chronic low income, and insecure and itinerant jobs. Populist sentiments should not inculcate court determinations of criminal guilt. Economic peril ought provide legitimate justification for crimes of theft involving the necessities of life. Parliament should act to make this a universal ideal.


Basic Statistics about Poverty in Canada:

Is it really criminal to steal food when you’re destitute?:

Stealing Small Amounts of Food When in Desperate Need is not a Crime, Rules Italy’s Highest Court:

Hungry Kidderminster woman stole Mars bars after benefit sanctions left her with no money for food:

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