THE HUMAN CONDITION : America’s Least Wanted Criminals : Wrongdoing: Some of us take pens from work, others sneak into movie theaters. As long as there are big rules to follow, people will find little ways to get around them.


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Ladies and gentlemen, the story you are about to read is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the guilty.



This is the city. There are thousands of serious crimes committed here every day, disrupting our social fabric and creating chaos in the streets. This is a story about none of them.

Rather, it’s the saga of America’s Least Wanted, average folks responsible for the sort of minor wrongdoing that will never show up on a police report.

The small-time criminals are everywhere. Maybe they’re sneaking into more than one theater in the local cineplex. Or grabbing a handful of yogurt peanuts from the grocery store bin and eating all the evidence before getting to the check-out stand. Or making personal long-distance calls from work.

Such petty offenses are not exactly the kind of things a responsible adult is supposed to go around doing, but can you really trust anyone who doesn’t commit the occasional small crime?

“Such behavior is fairly common,” says Dr. Alfred Coodley, an assistant professor in clinical psychiatry at UCLA and a psychiatric consultant to the criminal division of the Los Angeles Superior Court system.

His theory is that as children, we all learn morals from our parents. If both folks present the same message of what’s right and wrong, we grow up with a rigid set of morals that provides no room for a small crime or two.


However, if they gave you mixed morality signals--Mom said stealing was wrong, but Dad revisited the buffet table despite a one-visit rule--chances are the pens, coffee and toilet paper sitting around your house were all purloined from your office supply closet.

“People get a degree of satisfaction because what they’re doing is a remnant of what they wanted to do 20 years ago and never did,” Coodley adds.

The only difference among small crimes, apparently, is the justification for the illegal act. Certainly the most obvious reason is a selfish one. You see something you want. You take it.

Take Jane, a Culver City paralegal, for instance. A few years ago, her law firm was moving to a new building. All the office furniture had to be tagged by the movers, one of whom asked Jane if the painting in her office was hers. It had been in her office for about five years, and she’d grown to love it, so she said yes. The mover gave Jane the painting to take home. Which she did, without once raising any objection.

Says Jane: “I guess I slipped into little-girl mode at that moment, because I really wanted it for myself.”

Jane has kept her crime a secret and doesn’t display her ill-gotten gain in a prominent place in her home, but that doesn’t mean she feels guilty.


Nor does Samantha, a publicist for a local business publication, whose boss was preparing her annual evaluation. Realizing that advance knowledge of what her boss thought about her work might come in handy, she snuck into her superior’s computer files one day.

“She was out for a long lunch, and I was just feeling nosy and wanted to see what she said about me,” Samantha explains. “I went into her directory, found something with my initials and called it up. I felt scared doing it, but there was no guilt. I figured it was something about me, so it was mine. I didn’t feel like you have to justify being sneaky.”

Nothing that she learned by peeking at her evaluation was particularly noteworthy. Still, Samantha says her advance knowledge will let her “totally head off” any of her boss’s criticism. Without remorse.

“Crime pays,” she says succinctly.

Other petty criminals, however, don’t have much interest in seeing a payoff for their offenses. In fact, they are convinced what they’re doing is for the good of society.

“They all do have a conscience,” says Brian, a Los Angeles attorney. “People just don’t see the cumulative effect of their actions. They don’t think, ‘If I do it, everyone will do it.’ They feel like it’s their own sense of justice.”

He freely admits that he’s been known to wait for somebody to buy a newspaper from a sidewalk rack and grab the door before it shuts to get his paper free. Or hit the knob on a parking meter in just the right way so time will register on it.


He could easily buy the paper or put change in the meter. However, it’s the principle of the thing.

“You feel more like Robin Hood,” Brian explains. “You’re taking from the rich and giving to the poor--yourself. You figure the newspaper company makes so much money, taking one paper won’t matter. You’re really not taking from someone who needs the money and can’t easily get it.”

Dave, a Hollywood-based telemarketer, is even more vigilant about his small crimes. One of his favorites is to go to certain fast-food chains, order a sandwich and then ask for a free cup to get some water. Then he uses that cup to drink “as much soda pop as I can handle.”

He figures he’s saved hundreds of dollars over the years with this technique, but that’s not why he does it.

“Maybe it’s because if you’re even remotely aware of how often the companies rip you off, you develop a sense of justice about this,” he states proudly. “Should everything they have cost as much as it does? No. When you see an opportunity to rip off a big corporation like that, I say do it.”

Naturally, there isn’t much guilt here either.

“People think, ‘This is a stupid rule. Why should I follow it?’ ” says Karen, a comedian whose crimes include using more than one coupon per household and sneaking into three different movies in one cineplex.


While she isn’t particularly remorseful, she is occasionally overwhelmed by another feeling. Stupidity. She’s not alone. Many commit their half-heinous acts not because they’re selfish or because they seek a little vengeance. Instead, they reluctantly confess, they do it because it’s the easy way out.

Barbara, a fashion model, fits right into this category. She does a lot of work for department store supplements, which are circulated in daily newspapers. To get these samples of her work, she’s been known to put money into a newspaper rack and grab the supplements from all the papers inside.

“I know it’s not a nice thing to do, but I figure nobody really cares anyway,” she confesses. “I attribute it to my own laziness. It’s too hard to get copies by going through the stores.”

That’s how Ed got hooked on his crime, too. The photographer, who works in Los Angeles often but lives in San Francisco, says he’s too lazy to purchase a neighborhood parking permit. Instead, he sits in his apartment constantly watching for the parking patrol to put a chalk mark on his tire. Then, he springs into action.

“I have this sponge soaked in rubbing alcohol,” he says, proudly. “I go out to my car and pretend I’m going into my trunk, but then I bend down and wipe the mark off.”

The alcohol keeps him from leaving a smudge. It’s a lot of effort to go through on a daily basis, especially when the $28 parking permit would eliminate the need for his ritual. Still, Ed has been doing this for two years now and has become “addicted to the thrill.”


“I experience some anxiety because I know it’s a crime, but I also get some fun out of it,” he says.

There’s always the risk that this excitement can get out of hand. A small crime might go so well, the criminal might decide to take it one step further, according to UCLA’s Coodley. OK, maybe taking a stapler from work doesn’t lead to embezzling funds.

“It’s tricky to decide for whom committing a small crime can be beneficial and for whom it can lead to a major deviation,” he says. “And I think a fair percentage of humans will admit to one little crime but repress bigger crimes they may have committed.”

In any case, as long as there are big rules to follow, people will find little ways to get around them. Like Lisa, a Los Angeles-area human resources manager, who says the only crime large or small that she’s ever pulled off was stealing one piece of Bazooka bubble gum from a college bookstore several years ago. The line at the check-out stand was long. She didn’t feel like waiting to pay for the gum. So she put it in her mouth and walked out.

She still feels bad about it, but at the same time, she sounds secretly proud of what she did. And therein lies the key to most small crimes.

“There’s a devilish side to everyone that likes to think you got away with this one little thing,” she says. “Nobody wants to be this little angel all the time.”