By Emily Green, Street Roots
There are common misdemeanor offenses and then there are the obscure.
Last 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.
Cases in which people are charged with theft for plugging electronic devices into private outlets are uncommon, but defense attorneys say they’re another example of resources wasted for frivolous offenses.
In this case, the theft was first reported by Portland Patrol Inc., and two Portland police officers followed up to issue the woman and her co-defendant, a homeless man who was also charging his cellphone at the planter box outlet, citations to appear in court for third-degree theft of services – a Class C misdemeanor.
According to the Electrical Research Institute, it costs about 25 cents a year to charge the average mobile phone. If the phone in this scenario had gone from zero charge to full charge, the cost would have amounted to mere fractions of a penny.
Jackie* 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.
Additionally, a theft charge is more likely to be associated with shoplifting or taking personal property, not plugging a charger into an electrical outlet. Jackie says the charge would give the wrong impression of what she had done, should someone see her record.
“It’s just my sense of right and wrong, and it just feels so damn wrong,” says Jackie. “The amount of time and money and wasted resources with the judge, the lawyers, the clerks, the police and on and on.”
Jackie’s was not an isolated incident. Public defender Jane Fox says she’s seen similar cases. “It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it’s just insane,” says Fox. “The (case) that I had was somebody charging their phone by the Greyhound bus station. Don’t you have a reasonable expectation that an outlet near the bus station would be OK?”
Jackie’s case went to Community Court. Community Court is an effective way to avoid the higher costs associated with processing misdemeanor crimes through Circuit Court, and it can help people who need social services, like drug or alcohol treatment, says Fox.
Fox says the majority of charges sent to Community Court get reduced from misdemeanors to violations. According to numbers compiled by Clean and Safe District, between 2002 and 2012, about 67 percent of defendants processed through Community Court closed their cases in full compliance.
If defendants don’t show up for their initial arraignment, they get a bench warrant – which can lead to an arrest – and if they don’t show up after being ordered to do community service or treatment, they’re issued a fine ranging from $435 to $635.
“Before I became homeless, I had no idea what was going on,” says Jackie. “Now I get harassed. How do you think that makes me feel?”
“Given the population we’re dealing with here, it’s like trying to squeeze blood out of a turnip,” says Fox.
When Community Court was started, defendants would show up once, get their treatment or community service assignment, and then return when it was complete. A 2010 ruling by the Court of Appeals found that defendants had the right to an arraignment so they could have the option of pleading not guilty. This added an extra step that, according to Fox, has contributed in an increase in people failing to appear.
Jackie missed her first arraignment. She says she lost her citation, but turned herself in a couple of months later. Records show a bench warrant had been issued, and when she turned herself in she was booked into jail, and then released the same day. She didn’t miss court again.
Jackie usually tries to stay away from Portland’s Old Town because, she says, she gets hassled a lot, by people on the streets and police alike.
“I used to come down here with my kids and grandkids all the time before I was homeless, and I was never harassed once,” she says. For many years she worked in social services, and in some cases, with police officers. “I always liked cops,” she says. But now, she says, her perspective has changed.
“Before I became homeless, I had no idea what was going on,” she says. “Now I get harassed. How do you think that makes me feel?”
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 – a non-profit service provider – 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.
In Community Court she was given the opportunity to get the charges reduced, but only if she pleaded guilty and then completed community service. If things didn’t go according to that plan, she’d have a misdemeanor conviction and a hefty fine to pay.
But Jackie didn’t want to plead guilty to theft when she felt like she had done nothing wrong. And she didn’t want an offense on her record that could jeopardize her chance at housing. She decided to fight the charge.
This moved her case over to the regular Circuit Court misdemeanor docket where she was assigned the second of two publicly funded attorneys who would handle her case.
The district attorney’s deal in circuit court wasn’t nearly as sweet as the one offered in Community Court. According to Du Clos, it included one year of probation, 20 hours of community service or a $100 fine, and it required that she take a Theft Talk class. Theft Talk, a class aimed at thieves, costs $70. For those who can’t afford it, the price is reduced to no less than $50, which the offender has to pay out of pocket. Jackie, again, entered a plea of “not guilty.”
The day before Jackie was scheduled for trial, the DA dropped the charge. “It was very reasonable of him to do that,” says Du Clos. “I’m not sure that every DA would have dropped the charges.”
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.
Her co-defendant’s case still is pending due to his failure to appear in court.
*Name changed to protect identity.
This is one of five articles shortlisted in the News category of the INSP Awards 2015, which have been recognizing excellence in street papers since 2008. It was originally shared on the INSP News Service and was printed by several other street papers.
Street Roots is published weekly in Portland, Oregon, USA. Find out more about the publication here.