A homeless woman in Portland, Oregon, was charged last year with third-degree theft for stealing less than a penny’s worth of electricity while charging her cellphone on a city street.
While the charges against the woman were eventually dropped, a story from Street Roots News tells of the ordeal and panic she endured while facing criminal charges, as well as the money and time spent by the city of Portland and the local court system to prosecute a seemingly inconsequential crime.
The woman is identified in the story as “Jackie” because she didn’t want her real name used.
Jackie said she was charged in July with the Class C misdemeanor after she was reported for plugging her cellphone into an outlet on a planter box in the city’s Old Town neighborhood.
She said two Portland police officers initially arrived to issue her the citation to appear in court. Two others eventually joined them. The former social worker, who now suffers from muscular dystrophy, said she couldn’t believe the crime of charging a cell phone in a public outlet required the response of four officers.
She also worried that the charge and the court summons could jeopardize her chances of getting selected from the applicant pool for affordable housing. Jackie had never been charged with a crime before, but she knew a conviction could mean the difference between checking “yes” or “no” on housing applications when asked about whether she had a criminal record.
Her main concern, she said, was that people processing the paperwork would look at the theft charge and assume she was caught shoplifting, rather than charging a cellphone.
According to Street Roots News, the Electrical Research Institute estimates it costs about 25 cents a year for the average person to charge a cell phone. That means that whatever Jackie stole from the city in July likely amounted to less than a penny.
Jackie said the punishment and the response seemed disproportionate.
“It’s just my sense of right and wrong, and it just feels so damn wrong,” she said. “The amount of time and money and wasted resources with the judge, the lawyers, the clerks, the police and on and on.”
In Portland such charges usually get handled in Community Court to keep the Circuit Court from getting clogged with cases. Jackie missed her first arraignment. A bench warrant was issued for her arrest. She eventually turned herself in and was released the same day.
That was the last time she missed court. Prosecutors offered to reduce her charge but only if she pleaded guilty. She said she was going to fight the charge.
The case then got kicked up to Circuit Court where prosecutors were still willing to offer her a deal but not nearly as good as the one she had been offered in the lower court. She still refused to deal, because she did not feel she did anything wrong.
The day before the case was to go to trial the district attorney handling the case dropped the charge.
Jackie’s public defender, Stacy Du Clos, said she got lucky.
“It was very reasonable of him to do that,” Du Clos said. “I’m not sure that every DA would have dropped the charges.”
While it may seem like a lot of effort for a city to go through to protect a relatively miniscule part of a presumably huge electrical budget, Portland is not the only city who has tried it.
In 2012, WTVT News reported that officials in Sarasota, Florida, came under fire from citizens after a homeless man there was arrested for theft of utilities for charging his cell phone in a pavilion at a local park. The man reportedly lost his new job because of the arrest.
And more recently, in December, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti had to tell authorities to stop arresting people who were using outlets at the city’s Metro stations to charge their cellphones.
Metropolitan Transportation Authority Spokesman Paul Gonzales told KPCC News that the outlets were there for maintenance workers. Gonzales confirmed there had been three arrests.
Garcetti said that was three too many.
"This is simply common sense," he was quoted as saying by KPCC. "I want our law enforcement resources directed toward serious crime, not cell phone charging."
Photo Credit: r. nial bradshaw/Flickr, WikiCommons