Toronto law firm will defend anyone caught stealing food from grocery stores for free

Jan 20 2023, 3:41 pm

Canadian shoppers may be more willing to admit that they’ve stolen from grocery stores lately, whether in defiance of corporate greed-flation or out of sheer necessity amid an only partially-explicable spike in food prices, but the fact remains that shoplifting is illegal — and landing a charge could spell big, big trouble.

But it doesn’t necessarily have to ruin your life, according to one local legal professional who will defend anyone arrested for stealing food from grocery stores pro bono (as in for free) right now.

Licensed paralegal Frank Alfano, whose firm represents people all over the Greater Toronto Area, published an Instagram post earlier this week that is as much of a public service announcement as it is an advertisement for people seeking legal help.

“Criminal convictions have many serious consequences such as jail time, a criminal record, not being able to travel to America, not being able to get some jobs and more,” reads the caption of that post.

“We understand that it is difficult to deal with criminal charges by yourself… We offer legal services for criminal offence summary convictions as regulated by law society of Ontario. To qualify for free representation this must be your first offence, the value of the goods must be less than $5,000, and it should be in the GTA area.”

The post displays an image of someone stealing food with the text: “You do not deserve a criminal record because you wanted to feed yourself or your family!” — a sentiment Alfano believes in strongly.

“You know, sometimes people make some decisions that might not be ideal,” said the legal veteran, who has been practicing for 32 years, to blogTO in an interview on Thursday.

“Our ad is limited to people who are shoplifting food and necessities. If someone goes and steals a stereo, we’re going to charge them a fee, but if someone’s stealing milk for a family, we won’t charge them.”

In Canada, shoplifting charges are generally codified as “theft under $5,000,” a felony offence that (upon conviction) carries with it a prison sentence of up to two years.

Those who are found in court to be guilty of this offence — whether by a judge or by pleading guilty themselves — will have a criminal record as a result, potentially impacting their employment prospects, among other things, for the rest of their lives.

Alfano explained to blogTO that this doesn’t have to be the case, but that people without legal representation are often unaware of their options.

“Unfortunately, some people, when they’re self represented, end up pleading guilty at an early time and end up with a record when they don’t have to,” he said on Thursday, noting that many criminal diversion programs are available to offenders in Canada.

“The courts are backlogged, and they prioritise cases, and there relaly are a lot of important cases in the system,” said Alfano. “Someone stealing a carton of eggs… they’re doing it out of necessity. They don’t deserve a record.”

A first-time offender who goes to court alone and doesn’t have an entire day to wait around for free duty counsel services may not know this, and simply pleading guilty on their first day in court could needlessly change their lives for the worse.

With help from someone like Alfano or a member of his team, the shoplifter may be offered options that don’t involve walking away with a record, such as participating in volunteer work, undergoing therapy, donating to charity or writing a letter of apology.

“They’re usually educational. They’re meant to be remedial, not punitive,” said Alfano of the diversion programs. “And the charges are diverted out of court, because there’s a better way to deal with it than giving someone a record who just probably did something they had no choice but to do.”

And yet, while some might assume that more people are being arrested for shoplifting from supermarkets, given the fast-rising cost of food and growing disdain toward the billionaire-owned corporate chains that dominate Canada’s grocery industry, Alfano says this isn’t necessarily the case.

“I haven’t seen more cases, but I think that’s because the loss prevention officers are using more discretion,” he said of store security guards, some of whom recently admitted to VICE that they’ve been turning a blind eye toward certain thefts as economic circumstances leave more people destitute.

“It’s difficult to charge someone who’s stealing a loaf of bread or eggs,” said Alfano to blogTO by phone on Thursday. “They’re more likely to be given a break than, you know, someone who’s doing it for greater financial gain.”

True as this may be, people need to know that they have options in the first place, which is why the paralegal is offering to help them for free despite working a full-time job, going to school and dealing with the challenges of daily life.

“I’m upgrading to be a lawyer and paying for law school, so it’s hard to do them for free,” says Alfano of his pro bono cases, which he estimates comprise about a third of his work. “At some point, I have to pay my mortgage and everything else, but I can do my part. I still do my best anyway.”

While now 32 years into his law career, Alfano says he first came into contact with the justice system as a defendant.

“I was, you know, 16 years old on a motorcycle, and I was a street racer,” he tells blogTO. ” I began my career as a defendant, and I was in trouble.”

Fortunately, Alfano spent a lot of time as a teenager in close proximity to the office of a kindly lawyer who took him under his wing.

“I worked in a pizzeria next door to where his office was. He’d known me since I was like, 10 years old… and he trains me, you know?” he told blogTO. “I was lucky. I worked for a lawyer who said ‘you’re in traffic court so much, want to learn the act and take on clients?'”

“That relationship allowed me to have an opportunity I wouldn’t have otherwise had… I do a lot of free cases, just because it’s my way of remembering where I came from.”

Lauren O'NeilLauren O'Neil

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