Newspaper article International New York Times

Italian Court Says Hunger Can Excuse Stealing Food

Newspaper article International New York Times

Italian Court Says Hunger Can Excuse Stealing Food

Article excerpt

Roman Ostriakov, who is from Ukraine, had been sentenced to six months in jail for stealing cheese and sausage.

Stealing food from a supermarket may not be a crime in Italy if you are homeless and hungry, the nation's highest appeals court has ruled.

In a case that has drawn comparisons to "Les Miserables," the novel about deprivation by Victor Hugo, the Supreme Court of Cassation of Italy has thrown out the conviction of a homeless man from Ukraine, Roman Ostriakov, who was caught trying to take cheese and sausage worth 4.07 euros, or about $4.70, from a store in Genoa without paying for it. A trial court sentenced Mr. Ostriakov in February 2015 to six months in jail and a fine of EUR 100.

"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," and therefore the theft "does not constitute a crime," the appellate court wrote in its decision, which was reported on Monday by the Italian news agency ANSA.

The court's decision seems to have far exceeded what the appeal in the case had sought. Valeria Fazio, the prosecutor at the Genoa court where the trial was held, said by telephone that her office understood that Mr. Ostriakov had appealed in the hope that the court might set a more lenient sentence. But the court decided that he "doesn't have to be punished at all," Ms. Fazio said.

The court has yet to release its full reasoning, but Gherardo Colombo, a former member of the court, said it seemed to rely on an Italian legal doctrine: "Ad impossibilia nemo tenetur," a Latin phrase that means "No one is expected to do the impossible."

Maurizio Bellacosa, a professor of criminal law at Luiss University in Italy who has often argued cases before the Court of Cassation, said the application of that doctrine in a shoplifting case had "a certain novelty."

"They rarely apply the 'state of necessity,"' Mr. Bellacosa said, and when they do, it is generally in cases "like a castaway who fights with another shipwreck victim for the last raft he has to save his life. …

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