I was once a small criminal. By criminal I mean thief and by small I mean I was under the age of 5. My criminal career didn’t last long and in my defense I didn’t know I was breaking the law. Also, the object of my thieving made it too easy for my little hands to grab. Those candies were asking for it.
I lived the first 10 years of my life in the suburbs of Chicago and before I was old enough to go to school I would often go grocery shopping with my mother. Most of the time I didn’t have a choice on whether to go to the store. My siblings are much older than me and were in school during the day so they couldn’t watch me. In addition, sometimes these trips would include a stop at the local Greek diner for lunch or an ice cream sundae. Eventually the trips to the store had another incentive. Beyond the entryway in the produce section were bins filled with small individually wrapped Brach’s Candies.
Brach’s Candies originated in Chicago and all the grocery stores that I can remember had them for sale. Brach’s sold their candies in bulk as opposed to the usual candy packaging of Hershey’s chocolate or M&M’s. Brach’s Candies were small individually wrapped pieces separated by type in plastic bins. A customer would scoop up the candies, place them in a bag, and pay for them by the pound at the register. However, I was not old enough to know this process. All I saw were little candies in bins that were different from the big candy bars at the register. They looked no different than candies in bowls I would see at people’s houses that were free for the taking. So that is exactly what I did. While my mom was picking out various fruits and vegetables I would go over to the Brach’s bins and help myself to a few pieces of candy, my favorite being the cube shaped caramels. The candies would go straight from my little hands into my pockets. When I got home I would go to my room and eat the little candies in private.
Was this a crime? The evidence on its face doesn’t look good. I took the candies out of view of my mother. I put them in my pockets as opposed to holding them in my hands. I only took a few as opposed to as many as I wanted. It is easier to conceal a few candies in my pockets than a couple of handfuls. I waited until I got home to eat them instead of munching on them right away in the store. Once I got home I ate them in private so that no one would know I had them. All of these things point to a guilty mind. But was I hiding a crime or did I just want to conceal from my mother that I was eating candy before dinner? My memory of those incidents points to the latter. Also, at that age did I even know what stealing was? In legal terms, for my little act of candy grabbing to be theft I had to have the intent, or mens rea, to steal. If I didn’t know what I was doing was stealing then I couldn’t be guilty of a crime. As far I as knew those candies were free for the taking. Brach’s Candies and Jewel Grocery Stores were partly culpable as well. The bulk candy bins were at kid height level. If they wanted to keep them out of the hands of children, shouldn’t they have placed them out of reach? Maybe this was part of Brach’s marketing plan. They wanted children to help themselves to the candy so that they will get hooked (those caramels were delicious) so that when they are older they will pay for them in bulk. If that is the case, Brach’s was no different than a drug dealer. Not to mention that I couldn’t have been that sly to avoid a grocery store employee seeing me snatch the candy. If they really cared about me stealing the candies they would have told my mother. Thus, the owner of the property allowed my crime to happen. I think that qualifies as consent. What I did was wrong but it wasn’t a crime in the eyes of the law. The defense rests.
Eventually my life as a small time criminal came to an end. I started school so trips to the grocery store became infrequent. I learned the concepts of property and ownership, asking permission, and sharing. I learned that things in stores cost money and they must be paid for if you want to have them. I also heard the story of how my sister and oldest brother were caught by my mother with candy they had taken from a bulk bin at a little local store in my family’s hometown in New Jersey. Just like myself, they didn’t know what they did was wrong. It was candy out in the open just like candy in a jar at a relative’s house or lollipops at the doctor’s office. Unfortunately for them, my mother didn’t see it the same way. She marched them to the store and made them apologize for their crime and pay for the candies they took. Thankfully I avoided that fate. Clearly, I was a better criminal.