Homeless man faces seven years in jail over 43 cent soda ‘theft’

Mr Sobolewski fell foul of Pennsylvania’s “three strikes” law

Helen Elfer
Wednesday 22 September 2021 15:36
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A man who mistakenly underpaid 43 cents for a bottle of soft drink at a gas station is being held on a $50,000 bond and faces up to seven years in prison.

Joseph Sobolewski was arrested on a felony charge under Pennsylvania’s “three strikes” law for retail theft, according to court records, as he has two nonviolent theft convictions from many years earlier.

Mr Sobolewski is reported to have seen a sign at an Exxon gas station offering two bottles of Mountain Dew soda for $3, and believing $2 would cover the price of one, left his money on the counter. In fact, a single bottle cost $2.43, so staff at the gas station called the State Police.

Megan Ammerman, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania State Police, told The Washington Post that for someone who has twice previously been convicted of retail theft, an additional offense is automatically a felony, regardless of the value of the items stolen.

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.”

Court records show that Mr Sobolewski drove away without paying for a tank of gasoline more than a decade ago. In 2011, he stole a pair of $39.99 shoes from Kmart and was sentenced to three months in jail. He paid $866 in fines and fees related to the offense.

Mr Sobolewski now faces between three-and-a-half to seven years in jail, as his miscalculation over the price of the fizzy drink is a third “theft” offense.

Mr Flood said he is hopeful that Mr Sobolewski’s case could be a “flagship case” that eventually leads to changes in 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.”