This morning’s news contained the headline: “Sandwich Arrest Stirs Debate Over Eating in Stores.” Here’s an excerpt from the Associated Press article published widely throughout the U.S.:
. . .28-year-old Leszczynski, the former Air Force staff sergeant who is 30 weeks pregnant was feeling faint and famished after a long walk to the Safeway near downtown Honolulu and decided to eat a chicken salad sandwich while shopping and saved the wrapper to have it scanned at the register. But she and her husband forgot to pay for the sandwiches as they checked out with about $50 worth of groceries.
When confronted by security, they offered to pay, but Honolulu police were called and the couple were arrested and booked. Their daughter Zofia was taken away. Leszczynski said she was embarrassed and horrified.
They posted $50 bail each and were reunited with their daughter after an 18-hour separation.
What startled me as I read this article was not that two parents could be arrested and separated from their child because of an honest mistake or that a “theft” of $5 worth of merchandise could provoke such extraordinary punitive action. What surprised me was the content of the public debate inspired by this news:
The story generated a robust debate on Facebook and Yahoo in comments following stories on the theft. Some argued that it’s wrong to eat what you haven’t paid for, and that police did the proper thing in arresting them. Others said eating while shopping has become a perfectly acceptable practice. Many denounced the arrest as a heavy-handed response.
I am not a Facebook user and have only the above quoted news story to tell me what was being argued in this online forum, but I am overwhelmed by the futility of debating whether or not it’s alright to eat while shopping when the real stakes of this case have to do with whether our criminal justice system should be set up to irrationally punish a whole family for something that no one denies was most probably an honest mistake. A more appropriate punishment might be making the family pay the store for the sandwich (which apparently the Leszcynskis offered to do) or even making them pay two or three times what the sandwich was worth as a way of reminding them never to make such a mistake again in the future. Instead the store manager called upon police officers whose time could be much better spent doing something that promotes public safety. Then the police see fit to arrest TWO adults for a “crime”–though can we really identify it as such if there was no criminal intent?–when undoubtedly even the most incompetent of burglars could have managed to steal and eat a sandwich by herself. THEN the police called Child Protective Services to remove a toddler from two people who had given no indication that they were a danger to the child or to anyone else. Why were so many people both inside (police and CPS) and outside (store manager) of the criminal justice system willing to do this to a family and participate in a system of punishment so obviously inappropriate to the nature and severity of the offense? How many state employees’ time and how many government resources were spent inflicting this ridiculous trauma on a family? How does this incident reflect the arbitrary and inadequate means by which we punish all people who become entangled with the criminal justice system?
Who among those involved in the series of decisions that led to the arrests and removal of the child could have stopped this from happening? The store managers, police, and CPS workers would all likely plead in their own defense by saying that they were following policies, rules, or laws which requi,re them to behave in this destructive manner. Where then, can interventions be made to prevent this from happening in the future, and whom do we hold accountable for the trauma inflicted upon a father, a pregnant mother, and a small child?
It is not at all uncommon for parents to lose custody of their children because of arrests–even if those arrests do not lead to convictions. If a non-implicated family member is not present at the time of a parent’s arrest, Child Protective Services takes children into custody, and depending on the state in which this occurs, the family might have as few as seventy-two hours to both locate the children in the system and file the appropriate paperwork required to request a return of custody to someone in the family. If this is not done quickly enough, kids enter the foster system, and families have a legal battle ahead of them in order to seek restoration of family custody. Many of the people affected by such circumstances are poor, uneducated, and lacking in legal representation; if they do not figure out how to navigate the legal system quickly, all parental rights can be terminated as the parents struggle with both the court charges against them and the petitions to retain access to their children. As Martha Escobar describes in her chapter in Razor Wire Women on undocumented mothers in prison, these challenges become even greater for noncitizens and women than for other incarcerated populations.
The debacle of the Sandwich Arrest certainly gives us plenty of topics for public debate, but whether or not it’s appropriate to munch on one’s groceries before paying for them seems to be the most trivial among them. If we want social change to arrive or an approximation of justice to be possible, we must start talking about what matters most and quit obfuscating the most important issues at hand with chatter.