It's that time of year again. That time when people who - throughout most normal conversations across the year - would condemn shoplifters and thieves and crooks of any variety, but who then suddenly lose any formal connection with rational thought and begin to preach the virtues of donating to food-banks by removing goods from a supermarket shelf and dropping them into the donation basket without paying for them first.
"Well," they say. "It's not theft coz technically the stuff hasn't left the store!"
No, mate. No. It doesn't work like that. I'm here to tell you that it is *very* much theft. It is so fucking theft, I don't know how else to confirm that doing this is fucking theft.
Let me explain why.
Theft is defined under s.1 of the Theft Act 1968 as follows:
"The dishonest appropriation of property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it."
As a law student, one of the first things you're taught in Criminal Law (which I worked in for ten years) is the law relating to theft. The statutory definition above is such a mouthful of what seems like total gobbledygook, that in order to fully understand the offence, you break the definition up into five parts.
1. Dishonest - fairly self-explanatory. In the case of the food-bank donations scenario, think of it like this: Did you have permission from the supermarket to take goods off the shelf and put them in a collection basket without paying for them? The answer is more than likely going to be 'No'. Doing so is therefore dishonest.
2. Appropriation - a bit more complicated, but easy enough to understand if you think of it like this: Appropriation means effectively treating the goods as though they belong to you, even though they don't. It's about the 'appropriation' of the rights of the owner, such as the right to dispose of the goods as the owner sees fit. In the food-bank donations scenario, appropriation therefore takes place when you choose - without any lawful right - that those goods will be donated to a food-bank.
3. Property - again, fairly self-explanatory. In this case, property in a supermarket is everything inside that they are offering for sale. That is the deal - everything under the supermarket roof is their property. They own it.
4. Belonging to another - again, following on from point (3), this is fairly self-explanatory. The property in a supermarket being offered for sale belongs to the supermarket.
5. With the intention of permanently depriving the other of it - OK, so this is arguably where the confusion seems to come from. The argument that the goods haven't left the store is futile, because in law, they do not need to leave the store for theft to have occurred. Theft takes place the minute all five elements come together. The intention to permanently deprive is clear enough: You are not borrowing. You are taking. You are not simply moving the goods from one place in the store to another, you are intending that they do indeed at some point leave the store and end up in a food-bank back-room, ready to be packaged up and given to a needy family. Thus, the very second you form the intention to drop those goods you've just picked off the supermarket shelves into the donation basket, you've committed theft. With most shoplifters, it's the same. The offence is complete once all the elements come together.
So, you're asking... why do they always wait for you to leave the store before they stop you?
Simple. The law is just one part of it. Gathering sufficient evidence to prove a case is another, and as we cannot open up people's heads and read their thoughts, we cannot prove an intention to permanently deprive until a person has shown through their actions that this is what they seek to do, ie, leave the store without paying for something.
In the case of the food-bank donations, simply dropping the items into the donation basket would be sufficient evidence to establish an intention to permanently deprive and thus the offence of theft is not only complete, but there exists sufficient evidence to arrest and probably charge.
Let's not forget that most supermarkets have very efficient CCTV systems. If they picked up this activity, you wouldn't have a leg to stand on. Not only that, but self-righteous social media posts from people admitting that they've committed these thefts could also be admissible evidence of intention. People love to brag on social media, in their frustratingly ignorant way, that they've done this at [insert local supermarket] and that they'd do it again. If the supermarket had CCTV evidence of you doing it, and the police managed to get hold of your social media bragging, I'd have to advise you that you'd probably be bang to fucking rights.
But let's also not forget that food-banks rely on donations from the public, and supermarkets play a big part in facilitating this. If they wise up to large scale abuse, they just won't bother anymore, and the very people you think you're helping will be the ones who lose out.
And not only that, but as many more people seem to be doing it these days, believing themselves to be highly honourable Robin Hood types, stealing from the rich to give to the poor, the supermarkets could stand to make losses. If supermarkets make losses, they will find themselves having to save a bit of money. In order to save a bit of money, they'll cut back on one of the most costly outgoings they have - wages. Staff will lose out. And supermarket work isn't the most highly paid work out there... I tell you this from experience. I tell you this from actual, honest-to-god experience. I've seen supermarket managers clamouring to save wages by asking people if they want to finish their shifts early and go home.
Any member of staff who loses out due to the mass, costly theft of people up and down the country who think this is a wonderful idea could themselves end up facing financial uncertainty and becoming reliant on food-banks.
Not only is this behaviour completely and utterly criminal, it is thoroughly counter-productive to the stated aims. You can't bash shoplifters all throughout the year and then at Christmas turn into a thief yourself on the back of some warped and misguided idea of a) innocence by virtue of a loophole that doesn't even fucking exist and b) a Robin Hood style wealth-distributing decency. It doesn't work like that. A criminal is a criminal. And doing what you're doing *is* criminal. Just because you saw some idiot claiming it's technically not theft in some gibbering Facebook post, it don't make it right. It don't make it a good idea. Hell... a few years ago, people were doing online dares called 'Nek Nominations' - a drinking game which led to such crazed excesses of binge-drinking that lives were lost.
"Yeah, but we saw it on Facebook..."
For fuck's sake.
I'm not going to finish this by saying something like 'It's up to you now... I've explained why it's a terrible fucking idea but if you do it, don't say you weren't warned.'
No. I'm going to finish by saying this:
I couldn't care less if you get nicked for theft. What I care about is the people who will be harmed by your ignorant belief that you're not breaking the law. Be stupid, by all means. Be a complete fucking moron. But don't do it at the expense of people who rely on charity. Do it at your own expense, instead.