Admit it; most of us are petty thieves. Have you ever intentionally or unintentionally left a bank or restaurant with one of their pens? What if you borrowed a book that never got returned to the owner? Have you looked at a magazine while waiting at the doctor’s office or hair salon and left with it? What about ketchup packets or napkins at restaurants? Ever take a few for the road? Have you ever used the pockets of your sweatshirt to hold a canned good when your hands were full of other groceries? When you get home you realize that it had not been paid for! Ever go all Karate Kid kick on a vending machine and get 2 snacks for the price of one or none? We usually rationalize away these thefts to the point we don’t think twice that we could be arrested for shoplifting. Think again!
What if you were charged with shoplifting a $5 pumpkin and even sentenced for your “criminal” behavior. Okay, picture two star-crossed college kids on a date in their early 20s on October 28, 2011. Matthew Schindele and Lauren Medina were students at the University of New Mexico. There was a chill in the air that day and by evening it would get down near the 30 degree mark. They wanted to go to the Haunted Barn and corn maze at McCall’s Pumpkin Patch in Moriarty which is located in Torrance County New Mexico. According to the students, they were under the impression that a small pumpkin was included in the price of admission. Matthew was carrying a pumpkin around while the two sipped hot cocoa. As they were leaving, Lauren saw a display of pumpkins so she picked out one she liked. Sheriff’s Deputy Dianna Conklin observed this and took action. She arrested both students for shoplifting. The stunned couple then offered to pay for the two pumpkins valued at around $5 each but Conklin refused. Kevin McCall, the owner of the Pumpkin Patch, stood his ground and this great pumpkin heist would go to trial.
I understand that no owner wants theft to go unpunished. After all, if enough small items are stolen each day, it adds up over time and can financially hurt a business. However, the 2011 McCall’s Pumpkin Patch website stated that during weekdays, the pumpkin patch would be open to scheduled groups only BUT everyone would get a hayride, limited park activities, and one pumpkin per person with the price of admission! The website also stated clearly that a pumpkin is NOT included in the price of admission on weekends. I would argue the students likely misunderstood this policy. First, the students didn’t feel any guilt when they left because they didn’t think they had done anything wrong. They thought a pumpkin was included in the price of admission. Second, both sides in this case agreed that the intent was not to steal. Third, the couple had already paid for admission and for refreshments. Finally, the students even offered to pay for the pumpkins after they were charged for shoplifting.
The two students appeared in the Torrance County Magistrate Court. In New Mexico at this time, the law NM Stat § 30-16-20 (1996 through 1st Sess 50th Legis) in part defines shoplifting as “willfully taking possession of merchandise with the intention of converting it without paying for it.” In addition, the punishment of items less than $250 is considered a petty misdemeanor. Magistrate Steve Jones spent 2 hours listening to both sides before finding the college students guilty! Jones did defer the petty misdemeanor sentence which could have included 6 months in jail and a $500 fine. However he ordered that the pumpkin thieves do 40 hours of community service and pay the $73 for their court fee.
In an ironic twist, the New Mexico shoplifting law changed in 2014. Now some shoplifters that steal less than $500 or the equivalent of about 100 pumpkins will be cited but NOT arrested! The New Mexico State Supreme Court made the decision to free up officers for more serious crimes. The accused will still appear before a judge and if found guilty it will go on their record.
In this shoplifting case, I don’t think the punishment fits the crime. By the definition in the law they were guilty but in the court of public opinion the owner and judicial system overreacted. I guess when I take my daughter to pick out a pumpkin I’ll have to wait on the grocery clerk to take the anti-theft tag off the stem. Who knows, maybe they’ll card me as well. What do you think?
The following articles were used as additional reference material for this post:
Pumpkin Caper Article: