We Need to Reform our Laws Regarding Property Theft

Joseph “Yellow Kid” Weil only cheated “rascals.” Like George C. Scott’s character Mordecai Jones in the film The Flim-Flam Man, Weil maintained that “You can’t cheat an honest man.” One of his devilishly simple and effective cons was to bring a dog of questionable pedigree into a bar. He would then show the bartender a forged set of pedigree papers and ask him to care for the seemingly prized pooch while he ran an important errand. During Weil’s absence, an accomplice would enter the bar and offer to purchase the mutt for a substantial sum. When Weil returned, the bartender, hoping to make some fast money, offered to buy the dog for a few hundred dollars. Weil accepted, and the second man, of course, never returned.

Sixteen-year-old Stephen Dennison stole a five-dollar box of candy in 1925. As punishment, he was given a ten-year suspended sentence and required to report to a local minister once a month. When he failed to make his obligatory visits, young Stephen was sent to Elmira Reformatory in 1926 where he was confined for thirty-four years. It took his brother ten years to work for Stephen’s release. Stephen eventually sued the state and was awarded $115,000 for this miscarriage of justice. The presiding judge commented that “No sum of money would be adequate to compensate the claimant.”

No one could have guessed that mild-mannered Emerich Juettner, known under the alias Edward Mueller, was a counterfeiter. But for ten years he eluded government authorities while he printed and spent fake $1 bills in his New York neighborhood. The funny thing is, Mueller was not very good at his craft. He used regular paper and spelled the name of the first president “Washsington.” Although a crook, Mueller was not greedy. He spent no more than two dollars in a day, never passed his bogus bucks to the same person twice and used the fraudulent currency only for the bare necessities of life. The grandfatherly Mueller was eventually caught and sentenced to a year and a day in prison. He was also fined one non-counterfeit dollar.

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The film Mister 880 (1950) was made about Mueller that starred Burt Lancaster, Dorothy McGuire, and Edmund Gwenn.

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In each of the above cases, people were defrauded. The bartender was probably too embarrassed to report the incident to the police. Stephen Dennison received only token compensation for his extended incarceration. Mr. Mueller was punished, but his victims received no compensation. In fact, taxpayers had to foot the bill for the time he spent in jail and the costs associated with finding the dollar-bill counterfeiter.

The Bible outlines a way to deal with crimes like these: restitution. Restitution includes compensating a person for stolen or damaged property or physical harm done to someone. Restitution laws cover a variety of circumstances: assault (Ex. 21:18-19); bodily injury (21:26-27); liability (21:33-36); theft (22:1-4); property damage (22:5-6); irresponsibility (22:7-13); and the loss or damage of borrowed items (22:14-15). Voluntary restitution required the return of the item plus “one-fifth more” (Lev. 6:1-7). In most cases, double restitution is required (Ex. 22:4, 7-9). Some crimes required payment of four (22:1; 2 Sam. 12:6) or five (22:1) times the loss or injury.

Multiple restitution was usually mandated for items that had extended value. Sheep reproduce at a high rate and their wool can be made into clothing. To steal a sheep is to rob its owner of the animal’s present and future productivity. An ox has similar value plus the added ability to pull plows and carts, essential functions in an agrarian society.

In all cases, laws of restitution placed a limit on revenge and a burden on the lawbreaker…


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