Poverty Is Not A Crime, But Is It A Defense?

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread.

―-Anatole France

It’s no crime to be poor. But then, the connection of poverty to crime gives rise to a great many issues, many of which are being brought to the forefront by reformers of late. Why does a person charged with petty theft sit in jail awaiting trial while presumptively innocent when an accused killer walks free because he has the wherewithal to make bail?

Much as we’re all familiar with the technical reasons for the fixing of bail, as well as its frequently dubious execution, the question of whether money is a legitimate incentive to compel an indigent defendant to return to court is a damn good one. What else could be used? It’s a fair question, but the corollary question, how does a poor person make unaffordable bail is a fair question too. And given the implications for the exercise of constitutional rights, it’s the far better question.

Yet, bail barely scratches the surface of the problem, because, as Anatole France noted, the same laws that apply to all are of very different significance to defendants in very different positions. The Seattle City Council has come up with a possible way to “fix” that problem.

The Seattle City Council is considering new legislation that would create a legal loophole that would make substance addiction, mental illness or poverty a valid legal defense for nearly all misdemeanor crimes committed in the city.

If approved, the ordinance would excuse and dismiss — essentially legalizing — almost all misdemeanor crimes committed in Seattle by offenders who could show either:

  • Symptoms of addiction without being required to provide a medical diagnosis;
  • Symptoms of a mental disorder; or
  • Poverty and the crime was committed to meet an “immediate and basic need.” For example, if a defendant argued they stole merchandise to sell for cash in order to purchase food, clothes or was trying to scrape together enough money for rent. The accused could not be convicted.

If it’s not a crime to be poor, should it be a defense?

Scott Lindsay, the former public safety advisor for the city, said Seattle would be in a class of its own if it ultimately enacted the ordinance.

“I’m not aware of any legislation like this anywhere in the United States (or) even globally,” he said Monday. “All cities have criminal codes to protect their citizens from criminal acts. This would essentially create a legal loophole that swallows all those codes and creates a green light for crime.”

On the one hand, there’s a reason why theft is against the law, and why it’s fairly universally considered to be an inherent wrong, although that’s been subject to some serious dispute of late as people justify looting as reparations. But if a person claims to be a drug addict or suffer PTSD, as so many self-diagnosed college students claim of late, do they get to commit crimes with impunity?

The core issue here is who concerns society more, the person committing the crime or the person against whom the crime is committed? While the issues surrounding a defendant’s commission of an offense have long been used in mitigation, that he deserves a lesser sentence due to less venal motivations based on limited capacity or desperate need, this ordinance pushes the envelope much further, putting aside the poverty of its evidentiary requirements.

So what do the nice citizens of Seattle think about the idea that being a victim of a crime will be secondary to being victim of society?

The council’s consideration of the plan has occurred with virtually no public discussion about the proposal, which has been included in the municipal budgeting process. The council has not, so far, conducted a standalone meeting to discuss the idea.

One of the more curious propositions in Seattle is that it remains under siege, even if the papers can’t spare the room to inform you, by protesters and occasional white college students in black. Some take the view that the City Council should reach its decisions not on the basis of what the voters want (voters, ugh), but based on their grievances and the distance over which they can throw Molotov cocktails.

Will the City Council seize upon this ordinance to essentially legalize misdemeanors because the poor, the addicted or the mentally ill can’t be expected to adhere to the laws that apply to everyone?

“This would absolutely open the floodgates for crime in Seattle, even worse than what we often currently struggle with,” Lindsay said. “It’s basically a blank check for anybody committing theft, assault, harassment (and) trespass to continue without disruption from our criminal justice system.”

There is an argument to be made, and is made with some regularity, that an ordinance like this won’t be abused, and that people are essentially good, harmless and love and respect each other. In other words, only a cynic would assume that bad dudes would cash this blank check. Experience suggests otherwise.

32 thoughts on “Poverty Is Not A Crime, But Is It A Defense?

  1. David

    Sounds like someone has been watching Les Miserables

    I stole a loaf of bread.
    My sister’s child was close to death
    We were starving.
    You will starve again
    Unless you learn the meaning of the law.

      1. Hunting Guy

        Morally, I see a difference in stealing a loaf of bread to feed your children and carrying off a arm load of Nikes.

        Will the law differentiate between the two?

  2. Texas Lawyer

    Do you have any Washington State attorneys in the audience willing to weigh in on the legality of such an ordinance? I’m fairly certain that in my state, such an ordinance passed by a city would impact only the local city’s ordinances, meaning that the state criminal laws against theft, etc., would still be prosecuted unabated without this…is it a defense? Is it an exception? Anyway, my question is, how much authority will this ordinance have? Are the penal codes in Washington State all local ordinances?

      1. Texas Lawyer

        I’m sure there’s one lawyer licensed in Washington State willing to have an academic discussion. Only a cynic would assume lawyers only law for money.

        1. SHG Post author

          smh. What you mistakenly assume is that you get to use my blawg to solicit answers from my readers. You don’t get to decide how things should work here, and you don’t get to use my comments because you want to have an academic discussion.

    1. Boffin

      You’re doing it wrong. Politely asking a question will only get you ridicule and derision. The correct method is to write something completely wrong with pigheaded certainty. You will get your answer in a jiffy.

  3. B. McLeod

    It is not clear at what stage the “dismissal” would occur. If the defendant is required to prove the defense at trial, they could still sit in jail for a long time due to inability to post bail.

  4. Jim Majkowski

    In Macaulay’s draft of the Indian Penal Code, breaches of contract for the carriage of passengers, were. made criminal because the expected violators, the palanquin­ bearers of India, were too poor to pay damages, and “yet had to be trusted to carry unprotected women and children through wild and desolate territory,” and not to abandon their fares when predators threatened them. That was circa 1862.

  5. Drew Conlin

    I wonder how that situation in Philadelphia where the looters with their “haul” were subsequently carjacked by some other poor folks would be sorted out.
    What of the recovered addict abstinent for a considerable length of time…. do they get to claim m this too? I don’t think the council gave this serious though.

    1. SHG Post author

      Whoever makes it home with their loot in hand gets to wear the Air Jordans, until they get mugged and the shoes are taken off their feet. What’s the issue?

  6. Elpey P.

    A disparate impact study on the victims of these crimes may give them pause. Then again, maybe they couldn’t spot systemic racism if they sneezed it out right under their nose.

    1. SHG Post author

      Much as the NYC council learned when it tried to defund the police, the people who opposed it were the black representatives. They don’t have the luxury of living in white folks’ fantasies.

  7. Anthony Kehoe

    It might be a good thing to let local municipalities try stuff like this. We can all talk about how we think it might turn out and we might be right. But an empirical study is always useful to hone the discussion. It may be that a policy such as this will work well for Portland or Seattle. It might fail horribly if the outcome ends up being that cities are left to ruin and the local people scream louder than the protesters to change it back. Right now the only people screaming are the protesters and there’s the so-called “silent majority” who are saying nothing. Participatory government is supposed to be a good thing, right?

    1. SHG Post author

      The problem with experiments like these is that they’re uncontrolled, so there’s too many changes happening at one time to know what works and what’s a disaster. Then again, it’s fairly safe to say that this would, if enacted, not work out well for the victims.

  8. F. Lee Billy

    The victims brought it upon themselves, dumdums. Why were they not “armed” to protect themselves, like the Oath Takers and assorted 2nd Amendment nutjobs? A good man with a gun,… Shoots himself in the foot, like Dick Cheney, that Svengali par excellence!

    Law enforcement and the Judiciary in Amerika today are largely the result of exuberant largesse combined with full employment acts by state, federal and local “authotities” and various legislative bodies.

    It’s a jungle out there, and a nitemare. Everything you were taught in school and read in the textbooks is a lie, and wishful thinking. Trust it. Vote early and vote often. Armed poll watchers will be out in force in Wisconsin, according to preliminary reports.

    Seattle could very well be “ahead of the curve.” Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. Not much else is working very well. Been there, witnessed that, etc.

  9. Pedantic Grammar Police

    Seattle (and its sister city San Francisco) are already overrun by criminals and bums, and taxpayers are fleeing. This will only accelerate that trend.

    1. Alex S.

      And yet the housing prices in those two regions would suggest you don’t know what you’re talking about.

      1. SHG Post author

        That’s always been a curiosity for me. Such expensive housing for such passionately woke people. Something emits an unpleasant odor there.

        1. MelK

          The smell in Seattle? That would be Amazon, Microsoft, or The Tacoma aroma, depending on which winds were blowing which way.

    2. F. Lee Billy

      What about Portland? Are they chopped liver! Hey, it’s the Left Coast. Can U say 9th Circuit Court of Appeals? Can U say Hotel Caulifornia? Kurt Cobain put Seattle on the map, and the rest is herstory. Jealous 👨.
      Hey, My daughter is out there and does not ask for 💰. That is a good thing. Keep up the good work, lefty progressives. Whatever you do, don’t get tripped up, stuck up or trumped up. Stick with Pillosi and Baby Face Shumer. You cannot go wrong.

      The Future of Amerika lies with the Yuth of today. Trust it.

  10. cthulhu

    One of the more curious propositions in Seattle is that it remains under siege, even if the papers can’t spare the room to inform you, by protesters and occasional white college students in black

    “Hello, I’m Johnny Cashless…”

  11. Steve King

    This will not go well.

    Getting the mentally ill and\or addicted into services is one benefit of an arrest. Some jurisdictions do this well, others poorly, others not at all. A friend of mine’s daughter was busted for possession, did two years, took advantage of the programs offered. She came out clean, sober, regained custody of her kids, got a job and got married. A rare victory. Seattle’s plan would simply let these people get worse.

    On the other hand what about the rest of us? Why should we be at risk because of your addiction or illness? Why should we subsidize the drunk and addicted?

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