Italian High Court: Stealing Needed Food Is ‘Not a Crime’

onions and corns are hanged on a stall at the Campo di Fiori food market, in central Rome, on November 4, 2014.

Italy’s highest court ruled this week that robbing out of hunger is not a crime, overturning two prior decisions that had condemned a homeless man for stealing sausages and two pieces of cheese from a supermarket in Genoa, at a value of four euros and seven cents.

“The incident is not a crime,” the Court ruled, arguing that a person who steals small amounts of groceries from a supermarket to cope with the “essential need for food” is not punishable.

In 2015, a homeless Ukrainian man named Roman Ostriakov was convicted of theft and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment and a fine of 100 euros. The judgment was upheld by the Court of Appeals. Although Ostriakov did not appeal that ruling to the highest court, the attorney general did.

He argued that the incident had not been a real robbery, but rather an attempted robbery, since Ostriakov was apprehended before he left the store with the goods.

In the ruling, Justice Maurizio Fumo, the President of Italy’s high court, went beyond characterizing the incident as attempted robbery, and to everyone’s surprise overturned the prior decisions completely.

“The condition of the accused and the circumstances in which the appropriation of the goods took place show that he took the little food necessary to meet his immediate and essential requirement to feed himself, acting therefore out of need,” he ruled in the final judgment.

The verdict made front-page news in the Italian daily Il Corriere della Sera, which underscored the irony of slow and cumbersome Italian courts, which devoted so much time dealing with a theft of €4.07 only to finally rule it was “not a crime.” All this, it said, in a country where corruption creates a deficit of some 60 billion euros per year.

The Court’s ruling, however, actually has a long and distinguished pedigree in Catholic Italy.

In the 13th century, the scholar and saint Thomas Aquinas famously argued that taking what is strictly necessary to survive is not theft, properly speaking, and that property rights are not absolute when human life is in the balance.

“If the need be so manifest and urgent, that it is evident that the present need must be remedied by whatever means be at hand,” he wrote, “then it is lawful for a man to succor his own need by means of another’s property, by taking it either openly or secretly: nor is this properly speaking theft or robbery.”

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