A woman who lost her job as a waitress because of a natural disaster is growing desperate. Her savings account is empty, any hopes of getting a job in these circumstances are futile, and it will be weeks before unemployment event gets to her application, let alone sends a check.
Her two young children at home don’t understand. Their complaining about a steady diet of mac and cheese and grilled cheese sandwiches breaks her heart. It’s not enough to satisfy them, to nourish their growing bodies.
She takes her last couple of dollars into the grocery store and stares at packs of meat she can’t afford. She picks one up and tucks it under her T-shirt, carefully looking to be sure she wasn’t spotted. Going to jail would make the situation for her kids even worse.
As she reaches the parking lot, a hand grabs her arm and instructs her to head back inside. She’s been caught.
Depending how much that package of meat cost— let’s say it’s worth $55, a Class B misdemeanor — our desperate mom could be sentenced to up to 180 days in jail or a $2,000 fine for theft under Texas law. But if she argues she needs it to feed herself and her hungry children, will they let her walk free?
“Legality does not change based on the finances of the person involved,” Peri Collins, an administrative law judge in North Texas, answered when posed that question. “Criminal laws against theft ban certain actions. Period. What the question is trying to do is add a morality component to making a legal determination, and the law does not work that way.”
Except when it does.
Dallas beautician Shelley Luther became a cause celeb for conservatives when she threw up her middle finger at Gov. Greg Abbott’s orders that hair salons remain closed as part of his plan to control the spread of COVID-19. She reopened her North Dallas business, Salon a la Mode, April 24 and shortly after received a citation for violating the governor’s order — an order which carries the weight of law.
At a rally several days later, she tore up a cease and desist order mandating she close, and when called again before a judge May 5 for violating his order to close, she refused to apologize and said her actions were to put food on the table for her family and those of her stylists.
“I have hairstylists that are going hungry because they’d rather feed their kids, “ Luther told the court. “So, sir, if you think the law is more important than getting kids fed, then please go ahead with your decision, but I am not going to shut my salon.”
With that, the judge ordered her to spend a week in jail — not for violating the order, but for contempt of court.
Elected officials quickly jumped to her defense, including Gov. Greg Abbott, who had set the punishment range the judge followed in sentencing Luther. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who never met a law he couldn’t twist to political advantage, chimed in as well. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — a former U.S. solicitor general — and others jumped onto the bandwagon, all calling for her immediate release.
This is justice in Texas and America nowadays. The letter of the law is either an “R” or a “D.”
It is ridiculous that Luther ended up behind bars, though it appears that was the intent all along. A group of activists calling themselves Woke Patriots recruited her to be their “protest” poster child and bankrolled the well-orchestrated PR stunt, according to reporting by Texas Monthly. It’s why Luther got the headlines instead of an Oyster Creek bar owner, Houston restaurateur or other grandstanding lawbreaker.
Go back to our desperate shoplifter, a woman who faces the same punishment range as the salon owner. Would the governor, state attorney general, U.S. senator and other elected leaders make her a poster child for injustice? Would they jump to her defense because her kids were starving through no fault of her own? More likely, her kids would be trudging out of their house toting their belongings in a trash bag, headed into CPS custody.
Those who keep phrases like “what part of illegal don’t they understand?” in their rhetorical holster ought to be indignant by Luther’s special treatment, instead of hoisting her as a hero.