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Italian Court Rules Stealing Food is Not a Crime If You are Poor and Hungry

The case is 'a new principle, and it might lead to a more frequent application of the state of necessity linked to poverty situations'

The man was convicted of stealing less than $5 of food. (Photo: scribbletaylor/flickr/cc)

Stealing food if you are hungry and poor is not a crime, Italy's highest appeals court ruled on Monday.

Judges with the Supreme Court of Cassation overturned a theft conviction against a Ukrainian man who stole $4.50 (€4.07) of sausage and cheese from a supermarket in Genoa in 2011, finding that he had taken the food "in the face of immediate and essential need for nourishment."

In 2015, the man, Roman Ostriakov, was sentenced to six months in jail and ordered to pay a $115 (€100) fine.

"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," the court ruled on Monday. For that reason, the theft "does not constitute a crime."

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The prosecutor in the case, Valeria Fazio, told the New York Times on Tuesday that her office had appealed in hopes of getting Ostriakov a lighter sentence given his desperate circumstances—but had no expectation that the court would decide he "doesn't have to be punished at all."

Maurizio Bellacosa, a criminal law professor at Luiss University in Rome, added that the case is "a new principle, and it might lead to a more frequent application of the state of necessity linked to poverty situations."

However, as an op-ed in the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera pointed out, it took three rounds of court rulings before a case concerning $4 of goods, "in a country burdened with [$69 billion] a year of corruption," was overturned. It is "unthinkable" that the law made no note that hundreds of people become homeless in Italy every day, the editorial by Goffredo Buccini said.

A former member of the Supreme Court of Cassation told the Times that the final verdict seemed to rely on an Italian doctrine based on the Latin phrase, "Ad impossibilia nemo tenetur," which translates to, "No one is expected to do the impossible."

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