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Homeless man arrested for shortchanging 43 cents for a Mountain Dew could face 7 years in prison

38-year-old Joseph Sobolewski was arrested on a felony charge under Pennsylvania's "three strikes" law for retail theft.

Homeless man arrested for shortchanging 43 cents for a Mountain Dew could face 7 years in prison
Cover Image Source: Bottles of Mountain Dew are displayed in a cooler at Marina Supermarket on July 22, 2014, in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A homeless man faces up to seven years in prison after shortchanging a Pennsylvania convenience store 43 cents for a bottle of Mountain Dew. According to PennLive, when 38-year-old Joseph Sobolewski stopped at a gas station in Duncannon last month, he saw a sign for 20-ounce Mountain Dew bottles: 2 for $3. Believing the cost of a single bottle of the soft drink was $1.50, he slapped $2 on the counter for one bottle and walked out. However, Sobolewski had miscalculated the price of a single Mountain Dew which was $2.29 plus tax, meaning he was 43 cents short. The store called the State Police over the theft, and according to The Washington Post, court records state that the man was later arrested on a felony charge under the state's "three strikes" law for retail theft.


Sobolewski, who has two nonviolent theft convictions from many years earlier, is now being held on a $50,000 bond and faces up to seven years in prison. Under Pennsylvania’s three-strikes law — which was enacted in the mid-1990s — a first charge of retail theft where the value of the items stolen is less than $150 is graded as a summary offense, comparable to a speeding ticket. The second offense is considered a misdemeanor and the third and subsequent offenses — irrespective of the amount — are all graded as third-degree felonies, which is the same charge for items valued at more than $1,000.


Sobolewski's first theft conviction occurred over 10 years ago for driving off without paying for a tank of gasoline. He was arrested in December 2011 after stealing a pair of shoes at Kmart that cost $39.99. For that crime, Sobolewski paid $866 in fines and fees and was sentenced to three months in jail for a probation violation. Addressing Sobolewski's recent arrest, Trooper Megan Ammerman — a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania State Police — emphasized that authorities were following the state law which said that for someone previously convicted of retail theft two times, an additional offense is automatically a felony.


"Troopers cannot decide to not charge someone for a criminal case, only victims of certain crimes can decline charges," Ammerman wrote in a statement. "If we are called to an incident involving a crime we follow and enforce the PA Crimes Code." Speaking to reporters, Magisterial District Judge Jacqueline Leister, who set Sobolewski's $50,000 bond, said that he owed child support and $1,500 in fines from a previous marijuana arrest but was not wanted on any other charges. She also claimed that he was "hiding" from police but this allegation has not been documented in police or court records.


Brandon J. Flood, secretary of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, denounced the charges against Sobolewski, calling it "a complete and utter waste of resources." He shared the stance of other critics who pointed out how the state law does not offer discretion to the value of the item in the third arrest. "This is literally a matter of cents, resulting in not only criminalizing an individual but costing taxpayers money to house him," said Flood. "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."


News of Sobolewski's arrest comes shortly after a woman named Michele Thiesen completed a 27-year prison sentence under California's three-strikes law for stealing a VCR. Rep. Dan Miller (D), who has repeatedly introduced bills to change the three-strikes retail theft law in recent years, pointed out that adding felonies to people's struggles when they are impoverished or struggling with addiction only does more harm and doesn't deter crime. "It doesn't operate as a deterrent," he said. "It just operates as a problem. When a person reaches sobriety, now because they have a felony, it's difficult to move forward. It's an out-of-balance punishment that serves no value and hampers people from reaching long-term success." Sobolewski's next court appearance is scheduled for November.

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