Is It Legal to Steal a Loaf of Bread to Feed a Starving Family?

Factually. The debate over the morality is longstanding, but I searched and can’t find a formal legal statement. Does the law make exceptions of this nature?

The closest analogy I could find is: it appears to be legal for me me to break the window of a car, to rescue a kid who is in danger because the car is too hot. Rescuing someone from a burning car or house is another example.

Does this fall into the “reasonable man” concept, where a reasonable person would break the law in certain emergencies, thus the law permits this?

Is it a concept that is “in the spirit of the law” but never formally codified? I once heard a law school teacher say, “It is better to let ten guilty people go free than convict one innocent person.” That isn’t actually written in any law book, but it is taught in law schools. Is the “loaf of bread” thing similar? Everybody knows it, but no legislature ever passed it?

IANAL but I don’t see why it would be. With the car analogy you have to act now to rescue the kid and you don’t have any option other than to break the window. With a starving family you can just take them to a hospital, there is no pressing need to feed them straight away such it would be ok to steal bread.

I’m going to go with not legal. There are ways of legally feeding a starving family (giving them some of your own food, taking them to a shelter/food kitchen) so it’s not like stealing is the only option available to you.

Jean Valjean is that you?

Not legal. The extent to which the state or whomever may wish to pursue prosecution of the case (“De minimis” and all that) and/or the harshness of the punishment if found guilty may be affected by the circumstances surrounding the theft, but it remains an illegal act.

You read my mind.

And, stole my joke.

Is it not the case that even when breaking the car window to rescue a child, you could be committing an act of criminal damage (or something), but would not be prosecuted for it, because prosecution would be a dick move in those circumstances?

The point is, unless we are in a very laissez faire capitalistic society (insert inappropriate political comment) the state in its wisdom does not allow people to starve and freeze in the dark. There is welfare, there are soup kitchens, there are churches and food banks. There’s begging on the streets (that seems pretty lucrative in some locations).

I suspect that like homeless shelters and welfare, the “legal” alternatives are not as good or as flexible as the lifestyle that crime could provide.

Plus I’ll agree with the “immediacy” requirement. Even an extra 5 minutes in a closed car can be the difference between life and death. Any walking but hungry person likely has no problem making it to somewhere that provides free food.

If we were talking about someone stuck in the wilderness and the only person for 30 miles around refuses to feed you when asked, then likely the prosecutors will decline to try the case if you steal food.

Factually, the answer is generally no. You may be thinking of the defense of necessity, which may be raised in some tort actions. The classic example is a defendant who destroys property during the course of saving a third party’s life during a house fire. But stealing a loaf of bread is not a necessity because the danger to the child is not immediate and there are resources available to the defendant to prevent the child from starving (food stamps, etc).

Your “spirit of the law” example refers to policy rationales (bastion of the lawyer who has run out of helpful case law). Your specific example is often used as a rationale behind our judicial ideal of “innocent until proven guilty.” Law schools do not teach this concept as law; they are simply explanations for why certains laws developed in society.

“Need answer fast!”

Declining to prosecute due to extenuating circumstances == legal.

Saying that there are other options is beside the point. Although it may be true much of the time, it might not always be: there could be circumstances when your child really will die if you do not steal. The real point is that, given the inevitable imperfection of laws, what is morally right and what is legal are not always the same thing. It might sometimes be morally permissible or even strongly morally required that someone steal, but in most legal systems that will not make it legal.

On the other hand, in well designed legal systems there is sufficient flexibility and room for mercy such that punishment for actually illegal but clearly thoroughly moral acts can be minimized or even eschewed altogether at multiple levels. Police can fail to arrest, prosecutors can decline to prosecute, juries can nullify, judges can impose merely token sentences, and so forth.

I believe it is legal under certain circumstance and perhaps only in certain areas. In a emergency it is legal to break into a unoccupied dwelling, such like a cabin in the woods, for a emergency reason such as shelter needs, but the person doing it is legally obligated to pay for any damage in the process. If a family was lost in the woods and out of food, I can see how it could be extended to them, their financial status in this would not play into the legalities, only survival needs.

So technically the answer could be yes under certain circumstances.

Necessity is a defense in some jurisdictions, and a justification in others. Defenses are assertions that the act the defendant is accused of is not a crime. Justifications are assertions that the act is a crime, but one which should not result in criminal penalties.

The traditional view is that stealing food is a crime even if you’re hungry:

Not legal. It can be a mitigating circumstance if it goes to trial, leading to either acquittal, nullification or leniency, and even before it gets that far the authorities may decline to prosecute or offer to file a lesser charge. This is why I am not a fan of hardline mandatory-sentence/“three strikes”/etc. statutes: there should be room for justice to be tempered by mercy, when appropriate.

Just as “legal” does not mean “free of consequences in every case”, the converse formulation is also true: freedom from harsh consequences in specific situations does not confer some form of tacit general legality.

Is it legal to steal a joke to feed a starving thread?

Planes land on roads or fields in emergency situations. Something the FAA would freak out about and prosecute if it was just a stunt.

A plane landed on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive a few days ago.

IANAL and this does vary by state, but “Good Samaritan” laws are designed to protect people coming to the aid of people in distress–in some states it covers doctors/qualified responders who are not part of an official EMT/police/fire corps, but I believe in some states they also protect “civilians.” However, I believe these laws are designed more to protect against civil liability–so the family can’t sue the doctor who failed to revive the drowning mother, or the passerby who broke their car window while rescuing their child.

That of course is different than the loaf of bread. What about in situations like Katrina? In the immediate aftermath there was much discussion of whether residents were looting or not–the consensus seemed to be that taking water/food was not looting, given the dire circumstances. But I’m guessing that even in the case of such disasters, it’s up to prosecutorial discretion whether charges are brought. Right?

It’s always a matter of prosecutorial discretion whether to bering a given charge.

Unless there’s no charge to bring, which was the thrust of my question, perhaps not very clearly stated–i.e., is there any exemption in any state or federal law for circumstances pertaining to a massive disaster like Katrina? Or does it remain a matter of prosecutorial discretion in all cases?