By Jon Vitale
Elm Staff Writer
A man has been sentenced to serve between three and six years in prison for attempting to use a counterfeit $20 to purchase food and toothpaste.
Levi Mitchell, 53, a homeless, unemployed man with substance abuse problems, was charged with “criminal possession of a forged instrument” after police caught him in possession of five counterfeit $20 bills, shortly after he had tried, and failed, to buy toothpaste from a New York pharmacy and some food from a nearby restaurant. In March 2015, Mitchell was sentenced to eight years in prison, but appealed the decision, which reached the New York Supreme Court last month.
The court upheld the conviction but reduced the sentence to three-to-six years, citing Mitchell’s desperation at the time of his arrest, and the fact that he had been trying to buy “basic human necessities” for himself.
The reduction to Mitchell’s sentence seems like a rather hollow victory, considering the punishment for his crime. Mitchell did not, at either establishment, attempt to purchase anything valued over $20. Given the low value of these goods, attempting to buy them with fake money is akin to a clever form of shoplifting. Whether he used a counterfeit bill or simply attempted to walk out of the store with the toothpaste in his pocket, the result is still the same.
Mitchell was not violent or threatening in any way, he only tried to trick the store out of their product. What he did was clearly wrong, theft is theft no matter how valuable a product is, and desperation is not an excuse to steal. However, with such cheap products, and considering that Mitchell was not violent, his crime is no different from shoplifting. People get arrested for shoplifting every day, but few of them are serving years in prison for the crime.
Prosecutors and police defended the sentence by asserting that, because he was in possession of $100 in counterfeit cash, Mitchell was likely involved in a larger counterfeiting scheme.
If that was true, it might be the least effective counterfeiting scheme in history.
If Mitchell was a part of a larger harmful scheme, he would probably not have been homeless, and he would not have been struggling to obtain his basic needs. He was wrong to possess the fake money and he was wrong to try using it, but he is not a criminal mastermind, and the sentence seems really out of proportion to the offense, even after its reduction.
This raises important questions about the nature of our justice system, and whether it always defends our constitutional right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment.
The founders included the Eighth Amendment for this exact reason — so that a sentence completely disproportionate to the crime could not be handed down.
The justice system is meant to uphold and protect our rights, and any failure to do that goes against what the country is supposed to stand for. The Constitution matters, from its first word to its last. To maintain justice, the courts must defend all of our rights, and Mr. Mitchell’s sentence is a clear indication that in this case, the courts failed in that mission.