Roger writing the LAWmag
23
Jan 2012

Rich And Famous Kleptomaniacs: No Answer to "Why?"

Shoplifters steal $30-billion from North American retail stores every year.

They do not make the headlines but they cost us all, dearly, as prices that have to be marked-up to account for stolen merchandise.

The high-price defence to a charge of shoplifting is to plead kleptomania, a tough defence on paper but one which, with the rich and famous, fits nicely. One American study even suggested that kleptomania strikes the rich or famous more often then the poor!1

Klepto ... what?

One of the most unusual situations in law involve the kleptomaniac; the person who steals impulsively.

But why should it matter why someone consciously steals, or how often?

One psychiatrist based in Singapore was quoted in a recent legal decision, Public Prosecutor v. Goh Lee Yin, as follows:

"Kleptomania is an impulse control disorder characterized by the inability to resist impulses to steal objects that are not generally acquired for personal use or monetary gain. The individual concerned describes a compulsive urge to steal. The behaviour is classically accompanied by an increasing sense of tension before, and a palpable sense of relief immediately after and during the act.

"As to the peculiar features of kleptomania, the essential diagnostic criterion is the recurrent failure to resist the impulse to steal items that are not needed for personal use or that have little personal value. The individual concerned may experience a rising sense of tension before the theft, and then experience gratification and/or anxiety reduction afterwards. Typically, the objects stolen usually have little value, and the person sometimes offers to pay for them, or may give them away, or sometimes hoards them. What is especially cogent in this respect is perhaps the absurdity of the act – what is stolen is not generally needed."

That is the science of this rare affliction but it often does play out in spectacular fashion as those with money raise it in Court.

The Separatist Shoplifter

Claude Charon was a gay, very successful politician in the separatist government of the Parti Québecois in the Canadian province of Québec when his constituency awoke to an unbelievable headline on February 24, 1982.

It simply did not make sense.

Charron and RobinsonCharron had been shopping at the local Eatons department store on January 30. He tried to walk out with two tweed jackets. He was stopped by Eatons' security officials and tried to make a run for it. But he was apprehended and detained. Eatons pressed charges for theft.

But even when he was finally able to leave the store, Charron kept his mouth shut about the arrest hoping that Eatons would not press charges given his public profile. He had not even told his premier René Levesque.

On February 24, the date he plead guilty to the charges in a Montréal courtroom, he resigned his Cabinet position of government House leader.

The total amount of the items stolen: $120!

Charron was earning $74,000 a year in his cabinet post and when he resigned, his income immediately dropped to $42,000.

His actions smack of depression if not kleptomania.

It was a brutal year for him. In November, he was charged with drunk driving and resigned his seat in the National Assembly.

Svend Robinson, Shoplifter

In 2004, Svend Robinson, then 52, and the son of an American war-dodger, should have been on top of the world.

He was a very successful New Democratic Party member of the Canadian Parliament and a respected human rights crusader, especially in promoting the rights of gay persons, the group of which he was a proud member, as the first openly gay member of Parliament. The tall, lanky Robinson was fondly remembered by party faithful as the M.P. who heckled Ronald Reagan when the American president spoke in the Canadian House of Commons in 1987.

Then "the press conference", on April 15, 2004, where he admitted on national TV that he had shoplifted a ring listed at $64,000 and that he was facing a theft charge. In fact, the theft had been caught by the auction house security cameras.

He showed up at the blubber-fest with his boyfriend in tow. Much of what he said sounded like the incomprehensible blubbering of a school child caught re-handed, but included:

"... an act that was totally inexplicable ... I pocketed a piece of expensive jewellery... something just snapped in this moment of total, utter irrationality."

Robinson hired one of Canada's best criminal lawyers (Clayton Ruby) and before you knew it, Judge Ronald Fratkin of the British Columbia Provincial Court handed the celebrity shoplifter a conditional discharge, provided only that he complete 100 hours of community service. This, in spite of argument from the prosecutor against any finding of kleptomania:

"This is not a ball point pen. It is not a colour TV. It is an item that in the eyes of Mr. Robinson is was valued at more than the average Canadian earns in a year."

Robinson produced the usual line-up of reference letters from high-ranking New Democrats, to avoid a prison term.

Robinson, who openly championed transparency and honesty, has no mention of the events of 2004 on his website at www.svendrobinson.ca.

The List Continues....

Any gallery of famous or rich kleptomaniacs would have to include a pair of British actors, Stuart Hall and Tracy Shaw.

Stuart Hall was busted in 1990 for shoplifting when he tried to steal a jar of coffee and a pack of sausages from a grocery store in Manchester, England.

He was acquitted.

Tracy Shaw is a British sitcom star playing the hairdresser Maxine Peacock on Coronation Street. She stole a basket of strawberries from a grocery store from which it already been banned for previously stealing product.

Two American actresses fall into this category, rich and famous thieves ... or kleptomaniacs, depending on what side of the lectern you are on in criminal court.

In 2001, Ms Winonna Ryder tried to make off with thousands of dollars of clothing and hair accessories. She was 30 at the time of the shoplifting. Her theft had the hallmarks of kleptomania (see video, adjacent): Ryder did not need the items and the theft was extremely awkward: almost a plea for help.

She later blamed the theft on pain-killers.

She was fined over $6,000.

Lindsay Lohan, a frequent target of Hollywood tabloids, did nothing to promote her future privacy when she stole a $2500 necklace from a Los Angeles jeweller.

Her excuse: she was just borrowing the necklace.

She received a sentence requiring her to perform 580 hours of community service.

(header stolen!)

It seems such a convenient excuse for shoplifters to plead kleptomania, especially the wealthy, because they happen to automatically qualify under one of the features of the mental illness often put out there by psychiatrists: the theft is of objects they can easily, otherwise well afford.

Almost inevitably when a rich or famous person is arrested for shoplifting, the word kleptomania arises as a perfect excuse and to detract from the just as likely if not more likely alternative that although the shoplifter is rich and famous, they are really crooks at heart.

What's next?

Surely, there's a sickness out there that can explain away a missed mortgage payment or an entire credit card debt too?

REFERENCES:

  • New York Times, February 25, 1982, Quebec Legislator Guilty On Shoplifting Charge [retrieved Jan. 23, 2012 from http://www.nytimes.com/1982/02/25/world/around-the-world-quebec-legislator-guilty-on-shoplifting-charge.html]
  • NOTE 1:  Shteir, Rachel, The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting (Penguin Press, 2011)
  • Sun, Feifei, Why the Rich Shoplift More Than The Poor, Time Magazine, July 6, 2011 [http://moneyland.time.com/2011/07/06/why-the-rich-shoplift-more-than-the-poor/]

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