Joseph Sobolewski was arrested last week after he underpaid for a bottle of Mountain Dew at a convenience store in Perry County, Pennsylvania.
A sign advertised two 20-ounce bottles for $3. Mr. Sobolewski put $2 on the counter and left the store, PennLive reported. He didn’t realize that a single bottle cost $2.29 plus tax, which meant that he had underpaid by 43 cents.
The store called Pennsylvania State Police, who arrested Mr. Sobolewski and charged him with a felony under the state’s “three strikes” law for retail theft.
Pennsylvania State Police spokeswoman Megan Ammerman told The Washington Post that a third retail theft offense is automatically treated as a felony, regardless of the dollar amount. “Troopers cannot decide to not charge someone for a criminal case, only victims of certain crimes can decline charges,” she wrote in a statement.
Mr. Sobolewski, 38, was jailed with a $50,000 cash bond—an impossible amount for a person who is unhoused and earns only about $5,000 a year. He spent seven days incarcerated before his public defender persuaded a judge to change the terms of his bond so that he could be released, PennLive reported.
Pennsylvania enacted its three-strikes retail theft law during the mid-90s, when “tough-on-crime” political rhetoric led to a wave of excessive sentencing laws across the nation.
The law makes a third charge of retail theft—regardless of the amount—a third-degree felony, like involuntary manslaughter, institutional sexual assault, carrying a firearm without a license, and stealing items valued at more than $1,000.
The charge carries a prison sentence of three and a half to seven years.
Rep. Dan Miller, who has repeatedly introduced bills to change the law, told PennLive that adding felonies to the struggles of people who are impoverished or struggling with addiction is harmful and doesn’t deter crime.
“It’s an out-of-balance punishment that serves no value and hampers people from reaching long-term success,” he said.
Mr. Sobolewski was first convicted of theft more than a decade ago when he drove off without paying for a tank of gas, according to PennLive.
In 2011, he was sentenced to three months in jail and paid more than $866 in fines and fees after being convicted of stealing a $39.99 pair of shoes from a K-mart.
Records show that Mr. Sobolewski believed the soda cost $1.50 and didn’t know he had underpaid, The Post reports. Prosecutors will have to prove that he intentionally deprived the store of its full value in order to convict him of a felony under state law.
Pennsylvania Board of Pardons secretary Brandon J. Flood said the charge was “a complete and utter waste of resources.”
“This is literally a matter of cents, resulting in not only criminalizing an individual but costing taxpayers money to house him,” he told The Post.