Somewhat inspired by current events: Suppose in a supermarket, Alice puts the last thirty packages of toilet paper into her shopping cart. Bob then takes one of those packages from her cart without her consent. All of this happens before either of them has checked out. What law, if any, did Bob break?

It is my understanding that the merchandise is the market’s property until paid, and thus does not change its owner and thus, this is not a straightforward theft.

I am not specifying a jurisdiction, since I expect that the answer does not strongly depend on it.

  • It would be better if Bob took 29 of those packages and handed 29 to other shoppers.
    – gnasher729
    Mar 19, 2020 at 20:21
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    Of course, the most likely result in practice is that Alice complains to the store management, who demand that Bob leave without his selections and never come back. Mar 20, 2020 at 19:59

2 Answers 2


This is common law Larceny

While some jurisdictions may have statutorily redefined larceny; it is a very old common-law crime.

For example, the common-law definition is still in use in (even though the punishment is statutorily specified in the Crimes Act 1900) and the first element of the crime is that "the property must belong to someone other than the accused".

The suggested jury direction from the Criminal Trial Courts Bench Book says:

The law differentiates in a number of contexts between possession, control and ownership. Each of those concepts can become quite involved and complex. Fortunately, in the circumstances of the present case, it is neither necessary for me to seek to explain all their refinements to you, nor for you to understand all of those refinements.

However, to give you but the broadest of examples: if you were to buy, say, an expensive diamond from a jeweller, assuming that it was legally [his/hers] to sell to you in the first place, then, the moment you took physical delivery of it you would own it, have the control of it, and be in possession of it.

If, however, you proceeded to place it in a bank security box for safe keeping, you would, for some legal purposes anyway, cease to possess it, although you would still own it and be in control of it. If a robber broke into the bank and took your diamond, the robber would then be in possession of it, even though you would, in law, continue to be its owner.

When I direct you that the property must belong to someone other than the accused, all that is required is that, at the time of the taking, it must be owned, controlled or possessed by someone other than the accused. Thus in this context, the law uses the concept of belonging in the widest possible sense.

The overzealous shopper both controls and possesses the toilet rolls even though they are owned by the supermarket.

  • Which jurisdiction is this? Mar 20, 2020 at 18:04
  • @PaulJohnson the one names in the tag - also any that still use the common law definition of larceny
    – Dale M
    Mar 20, 2020 at 20:35
  • I would vote for jury nullification in this case. Mar 21, 2020 at 19:47
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    @Mowzer you don’t really think theft of toilet paper would actually be brought to court? Police discretion would be used unless there was violence.
    – Dale M
    Mar 21, 2020 at 21:11

If Bob takes packages from Alice's cart without her seeing it, that is theft.

If she sees it and attempts to prevent, like happened here, that is robbery.

It is my understanding that the merchandise is the market’s property until paid, and thus does not change its owner and thus, this is not a straightforward theft.

Legal ownership does not matter here. What matters is that Alice is in legal possession/control of the packages. Depriving her of this possession without her consent is a crime.

It would be up to the supermarket to limit the quantity she can actually purchase, not up to Bob.

  • In my state robbery requires "intent to steal".
    – D M
    Mar 19, 2020 at 21:22
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    @DM Stealing is also about possession, not ownership.
    – Greendrake
    Mar 19, 2020 at 21:38
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    The point made by @DM that the exact language of the statute in a particular state or country (as interpreted by case law there), is a good one. There is not "platonic" definition of robbery. It is defined one way in one place and another in another. In "heartland" straightforward cases the produce the same result, but at the margins, such as in the fact pattern in this case, they often produce different results.
    – ohwilleke
    Mar 19, 2020 at 22:16
  • @Greendrake "If a person seeks to repossess himself of specific property which he owns and to which he has the present right of possession and the means he uses involves a gun or force, he might not have the intention to steal." - Edwards v. State, 181 NW 2d 383 - Wis: Supreme Court 1970. So it's not just about possession.
    – D M
    Mar 19, 2020 at 22:31
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    @Greendrake: I think it's not NICE to take something from someone's cart, but I'm not convinced that it's theft or robbery. Are we even sure that the item is in Alice's possession? It's in the store's shopping cart. Does it matter if Alice is currently touching the cart? What if she has walked 20 foot away from the cart?
    – James
    Mar 20, 2020 at 13:31

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