He Had a History of Theft Convictions, but Legal Experts Argue that Poverty is not Crime

Lorraine Bailey | Courthouse News Service

CHICAGO (CN) – A homeless man who stole $44 in quarters from a vending machine does not deserve a 12-year prison sentence, an Illinois appeals court ruled, urging judges to remember that poverty is not a crime.

Harley Busse, 40, was arrested in 2012 for stealing $44 dollars worth of quarters from a vending machine on the University of Illinois at Chicago campus. He was living in a homeless shelter at the time.

The police stopped him almost immediately because they recognized him and knew he had no valid reason for being on campus. Concealed in Busse’s shirt, the officers found a wire clothes hanger with a curved end, exactly the kind of tool used to fish change out of a vending machine.

Busse was found guilty of burglary committed in a school and sentenced to 12 years in prison based on his 28 past convictions, including seven felonies and several convictions for theft from coin-operated machines.

The sentencing judge noted that Busse was a “career thief,” and told him that since “nothing up to this point has made an impression upon you…maybe my twelve-year sentence will make an impression on you.”

But the Illinois Appellate Court’s First District ruled Tuesday that 12 years for the theft of $44 was an excessive punishment.

“A paltry crime for a paltry sum does not warrant the unpaltry sentence of 12 years,” Justice Michael Hyman said, writing for the three-judge panel’s majority.

The judge ordered Busse resentenced to the statutory minimum of six years.

“Twelve years of imprisonment is grossly disproportionate to the offense of stealing $44 in loose change from a vending machine. Busse did not ‘break in’ to the UIC building; he apparently walked inside during the middle of the day,” Hyman wrote. “Busse was not armed and did not use a weapon of any sort. No UIC students were threatened or harmed during his theft. He did not even damage the vending machines. It is difficult to conceive of an argument that Busse deserves 12 years in prison due to the seriousness of his offense.”

If Busse had stolen $44 from a vending machine not on a school campus, his sentence could have been as little as one year, the ruling states.

Hyman said the enhanced sentencing for crimes on campus was meant to “protect the public from murderers and rapists, not penny-ante pilferage.”

Not one of Busse’s 28 prior convictions involved violence to another person, and most are for petty thefts.

“Judges must keep in mind that poverty is not a crime,” Hyman said. “It is a condition, and every day presents a struggle for the poor to survive, to cope, to get by until tomorrow. When one is poor, drifting into petty crime can become an option, despite its undeniable risks.”

Busse was living in a homeless shelter when he stole the quarters.

“Further, does his crime—pinching 176 quarters out of vending machines—require the taxpayers to pay close to 1,000,000 quarters to imprison him for 12 years?” the judge asked.

Keeping an inmate in a minimum-security facility costs approximately $20,000 per year. While judges are not expected to factor the costs of incarceration into their sentencing decisions, the panel urged Illinois lawmakers to consider whether incarcerating Busse for years is a good use of taxpayer dollars.

Justice Mary Anne Mason dissented. While finding the sentence “undeniably harsh,” Mason said the trial judge did not abuse his discretion.

Published by Courthouse News Service.