By Mike Pomranz
Updated May 03, 2016
Credit: © Ulrich Baumgarten/Getty Images

Most Western countries offer some sort of social welfare program to help feed those who can’t afford enough to eat. But a recent court ruling in Italy offers the hungry another option: take what you need. It’s a decision that’s both humane and complicated.

The ruling stems from the case of Roman Ostriakov, a homeless man who was convicted of stealing two pieces of cheese and a packet of sausages worth under $5 from a supermarket. In 2015, he was convicted of theft which brought with it a six-month jail sentence and a 100 euro fine. But upon appeal, Italy’s Supreme Court of Cassation tossed out the conviction, stating, “The condition of the defendant and the circumstances in which the seizure of merchandise took place prove that he took possession of that small amount of food in the face of an immediate and essential need for nourishment, acting therefore in a state of necessity.”

Though the BBC cites a number of Italian newspapers describing the decision as “right and pertinent” or a victory for “humanity,” the “historic” ruling does bring up some larger questions: Who decides what condition someone has to be in before they can take food without it being a crime? How “immediate” is immediate? And is there a value point at which it goes from necessity to excess? What if the man had stolen filet mignon instead of sausages?

Interestingly, an opinion piece in Corriere Della Sera criticized the entire Italian legal system for needing three rounds in court to sort out a theft case valued at under five bucks. Though – and I am far from an expert on Italian law – couldn’t this decision lead to a rush of appeals on other convictions of people claiming they stole out of immediate need for nourishment? If Johnnie Cochran were alive today, I could imagine him saying, “If you hear the stomach growl, it’s fair not foul.”