Cracking down on serious crime

Our legal system may not have the time or the inclination to go after top bank executives who caused the financial collapse that caused so much misery for so many, or the wealthy tax cheats who hide their money in secret off-shore accounts, or companies and businesses that defraud ordinary people. But when it comes to really serious economic crimes, they will crack down and crack down hard.

This past July, a homeless Portland woman was charged with third-degree theft when she plugged her cellphone charger into an outlet on a sidewalk planter box in Old Town.

“Jackie,” (who did not want her real name used), says she was shocked when four uniformed officers all agreed her actions warranted not only their response, but also charges and a court summons.

Jackie has never been convicted of a crime. If this charge led to a conviction, it would mean the difference between checking “no” or “yes” to questions about criminal history on a job or housing application.

Her attorney, Metropolitan Public Defender Stacy Du Clos, says Jackie’s main concern at the time was how this pending case might hurt her chances of getting a roof over her head – she’s homeless and on several waiting lists for affordable housing units.

Jackie says she prefers to sleep in close proximity to the police station because she feels safer there. But if she wants to shower or eat, Old Town is where are all the resources are. For Jackie, having a charged cell phone is a matter of personal safety. “Men approach me, stuff happens,” she says.

On the day of her arrest, she had to walk through Old Town to get to Transition Projects to take a shower, and her phone was dead.

She says she saw a man charging his phone on the corner of Northwest Davis Street and Third Avenue, and decided to join him. She had no idea that what she was about to do – plug in her phone – could bring a theft charge.

Jackie has muscular dystrophy and receives disability checks, but she is still sleeping outdoors while she waits for housing she can afford with that income.

Now she faces the usual problems of poor people. She will be found guilty of a trivial offense, be unable to pay any fines or court costs, and then the extra fines will start being tacked on that she can never hope to get out from under and she will end up in jail. All the while the system uses up a vast amount of public resources prosecuting a poor, sick, homeless woman for the ‘crime’ of using up less than one cent’s worth of electricity without paying for it.

I am not a person prone to easy rage but when I read stories like this I feel an inchoate anger towards everyone involved, from the person who reported the ‘crime’ to the police who arrested her to the legal system that will make her already difficult life more miserable and to a society in general that has nothing to offer a sick woman who is down on her luck except to kick her when she is down.


  1. samgardner says

    This is ludicrous.

    They put a power jack in a public place, and I’m betting there were no signs saying “do not use”. Going into any restaurant, coffee shop, etc., it’s standard practice to allow people to plug in their cell phones, laptops, or whatever.

    Insanity — shall we contact the Portland police department?

  2. brucegee1962 says

    Vagrancy laws are always problematic — it always looks fishy when somebody gets arrested for “loitering” in a location where people hang around all the time. It’s a little too obvious that the actual crime that the vagrant is being arrested for is “existing.”

    This must have been an attempt by the police to get a little creative in their downtown beautification project. Hopefully it will blow up in their faces spectacularly. But the next step is to go after the other laws used to persecute the poor — and maybe afterwards, to do something about the homeless themselves, or even the root causes of homelessness. Ah, what a crazy dream.

  3. daved says

    If you go read the full story, you’ll discover that eventually the DA dropped the charges. It wasn’t obvious that this would happen, however. It’s still a disgrace, even though, as it turns out, the outlet was privately owned, not owned by the city.

  4. says

    It’s the same old story as with the “drug war”. Why target those who have money and power when you can easily persecute…I mean, prosecute less affluent individuals?

    On top of that, the wealthy pay well (under the table). And they have pricey lawyers, not legal aid.

  5. says

    Next they’re going to come after people who steal power in airports.

    Oh, no, wait, air travellers are probably well-enough off that their crimes are ignorable.

    Meanwhile, we continue to have rampant corruption on Wall Street be rewarded with massive taxpayer-funded bailouts and payouts, and corporate criminals like Jeff Skilling serve as the fall guy for a massive conspiracy -- almost all the other principals of which get away with it (greatly enriched)…

  6. Johnny Vector says

    Regarding “Less than a cent”: We have to consider, what if everyone did that. Well, if it was a 20W charger (unlikely) and she left it plugged in for an hour, that’s 1/50 of a kWh. So at 12 cents/kWh, which is the rate in Portland (at least for residential customers), if it’s a duplex outlet and there are two of them, that’s a maximum of one cent per hour. If people are plugging in there 8 hours a day, why that’s almost a dime every day.

    So, yeah, if that were my outlet, I would be totally not caring about that. I might be worried about liability, but certainly not about people using the electricity.

  7. lorn says

    Generally, the police are told when and where to hassle the homeless.

    Odds are the local businesses complained to the city commissioner, who spread the love to the chief of police, who wound up the police, who are told to do what they are told or they get to be homeless themselves. Some will be more energetic and enthusiastic than others but it makes no difference. The same command system that unleashes the willing and tasks the unwilling could restrain the willing and let the unwilling act more as they please.

    Politicians make the rules about how fines work and what it costs if you don’t pay.

    I personally would like fines to be handled more like this:

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