Homeless Man Facing Nearly 10 Years Behind Bars for Underpaying for Mountain Dew

A Pennsylvania homeless man is facing up to seven years in prison for allegedly paying $2 for a bottle of Mountain Dew instead of $2.29 last month. Joseph Sobolewski, 38, walked into the Perry County Exxon store thinking he only needed to pay at least $2 for the drink since bottles were on sale 2 for $3. However, the sale was only applied to purchases of two bottles, so Sobolewski was supposed to pay the regular price, plus tax.

After realizing Sobolewski allegedly shorted the store 29 cents plus tax, employees called the police, who arrested him. Pennsylvania State police officers charged Sobolewski with a felony and held him on $50,000 cash-only bond, PennLive reported on Sept. 20. Sobolewski could be sentenced to three-and-a-half years to seven years in prison if convicted.

Sobolewski was previously convicted for theft 10 years ago for failing to pay for a tank of gasoline. In December 2011, he was arrested for stealing a $39.99 pair of shows from a K-Mart. He paid over $866 in fines and fees for the 2011 arrest and spent three months in jail for a probation violation. Sobolewski and his wife were also arrested earlier in the summer in Cumberland County for allegedly stealing craft supplies from a Hobby Lobby. His bond was set for $2,000 in that case. He applied for the state's diversion program after that arrest.

In order for the Mountain Dew theft charge to stick, prosecutors would have to prove that Sobolewski intentionally paid less than he owed and that it wasn't a simple mistake. The store's clerk told police Sobolewski put $2 on the country and she tried to let him know that he did not pay enough. Sobolewski allegedly told her that he did pay enough and drove away, according to court records. The store's manager also told police Sobolewski "threw" $2 on the counter. The manager declined to explain to PennLive why they decided to press charges over less than 50 cents.

Pennsylvania State Police officers "cannot decide to not charge someone for a criminal case, only victims of certain crimes can decline charges. If we are called to an incident involving a crime we follow and enforce the PA Crimes Code," Pennsylvania State Police spokeswoman Megan Ammerman told PennLive. Sobolewski faces a third-degree felony because it is his third retail theft charge.

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Sobolewski's case highlights many of the issues in the state's criminal justice system, according to reform advocates. The ACLU pointed to his $50,000 cash bond, which essentially denied Sobolewski bail since it is unlikely he could pay that. He was in prison for seven days before his public defender asked a different judge to modify that ruling. According to court records, the bond was modified to "unsecured," but his bond remains at $50,000. 

Magisterial District Judge Jacqueline Leister told PennLive she didn't recall why she set Sobolewski's bail so high, but she noted he owed child support in Dauphin County and $1,500 in fines for a marijuana arrest. A trooper also said Sobolewski attempted to hide from the arresting officers, although that allegation wasn't included in the police report. The judge also told PennLive she also considered the fact he is homeless because he would be difficult to locate if he missed a court appearance. His next court appearance is scheduled for November.