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Is Stealing Food Legal if You’re Hungry? Italy Says Maybe

stealing food is legal for the homeless in italy

While stealing is a crime, it can be tough to blame the hungry for stealing food.

We know this from literature – no one really blames Jean Valjean from “Les Misérables” for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s hungry children, after all. And Italy has just made this basic human instinct official; the nation’s highest appeals court ruled in May that stealing food from a supermarket is no longer a crime if you’re homeless and hungry.

The decision was made after a homeless man from Ukraine was caught attempting to take more than four euros worth of cheese and sausage from a Genoese supermarket in 2011. He was convicted by a trial court in February 2015, and sentenced to six months in jail and a fine of €100.

But the appellate court overturned this decision just a bit over a year later, writing, “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,” Italian news agency ANSA reported. The court then deemed that this act was not a crime.

The decision was made based upon the Italian legal doctrine, “Ad impossibilia nemo tenetur,” Latin for, “No one is expected to do the impossible.” In other words, the man was deemed to be acting based upon a “state of necessity.”

The idea of a ‘state of necessity’ already exists in the Italian law system; the doctrine is usually used to defend actions made based upon a clear and imminent case of life and death. In this case, imminence is struck from the record, and the importance of food for survival — and the importance of the dignity of the man — were the keys to the case.

While in the past, poverty was often seen as avoidable by the legal system, given preexisting social aid in Italy, the current economic climate may have contributed to the motivation for this decision. The nation is only just beginning to manage its recovery from the financial crisis in 2008, and as such, the poverty situation has become more dire throughout Italy. Homelessness and widespread hunger have become true problems in the country, where 615 people are added to the ranks of the poor every day, according to an opinion piece in Corriere Della Sera.

While this court’s decision is not necessarily binding for future cases similar to this one, as it would be in an American court, the New York Times reported that it may lead to more frequent application of this sort of permissiveness with poverty. We can only hope that other countries will follow suit and forgive people for acting out of such a basic need.

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Homeless man image via Shutterstock

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