A man who paid 43 cents less than the correct price for a bottle of soft drink at a gas station is being held on a $50,000 bond and could face up to seven years in prison.
According to court records, Joseph Sobolewski was arrested on a felony charge of retail theft under Pennsylvania’s “three strikes” law, as he has two prior nonviolent theft convictions.
Mr Sobolewski allegedly saw a sign at an Exxon gas station advertising two bottles of Mountain Dew soda for $3 and, believing that $2 would cover the cost of one, left his money on the counter. Indeed, a single bottle cost $2.43, prompting the gas station’s staff to notify the State Police.
Megan Ammerman, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania State Police, told The Washington Post that anyone convicted of retail theft twice before is automatically charged with a felony, regardless of the value of the stolen items.
She said in a statement: “Troopers cannot decide to not charge someone for a criminal case, only victims of certain crimes can decline charges. If we are called to an incident involving a crime we follow and enforce the PA Crimes Code.”
Brandon J Flood, secretary of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, called the charge “a complete and utter waste of resources”.
He continued: “This is literally a matter of cents, resulting in not only criminalizing an individual but costing taxpayers money to house him.”
Mr Flood told The Washington Post. “We’re still grappling with a global pandemic and we have to be better fiscal stewards across the board, and this is the complete antithesis of that. We shouldn’t be seeing these kinds of cases.”
Mr Sobolewski drove away without paying for a tank of gasoline more than a decade ago, according to court records. In 2011, he was sentenced to three months in prison for stealing a pair of $39.99 shoes from Kmart. He was fined and assessed fees totaling $866 for the offence.
Mr Sobolewski now faces a sentence of between three and a half and seven years in prison for his error in calculating the price of the fizzy drink, which constitutes a third “theft” offence.
Mr Flood expressed hope that Mr Sobolewski’s case will serve as a “flagship case” for changes to the three-strikes law.
“This law is crafted because it’s meant to serve as a deterrent, and I don’t think it has served its purpose,” Mr Flood said.
“This is low-hanging fruit.”
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