Out of the Mall and Into Court: The 'Shopaholic Defense'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Whether it's Manolo Blahniks or model ships, bingeing on unneeded purchases only to regret them when the bills arrive is fast becoming a national pastime. But now, thanks to a novel federal ruling, there appears to be a medical justification for compulsive shopping good enough to stand up in court. Goodbye AmEx bill, hello Hermes Birkin bag.

A Chicago woman who embezzled nearly $250,000 from her former employer to finance shopping binges was recently spared jail time by invoking what is believed to be the first "shopaholic defense." Elizabeth Roach, 47, bought expensive clothing and accessories, not to keep her closet current, but to "self-medicate" her depression, according to evidence presented to the U.S. District Court in Chicago during her sentencing hearing.

"Most of the media believe I have come up with a clever defense on the order of pulling a fast one," defense attorney Jeffrey Steinback said. "But it was obvious that this lady was and is terribly ill. She hasn't gotten away with anything."

In today's consumer-driven culture, shopping is one indulgence that is deemed socially acceptable. Movies and television bombard with "buy" messages, T-shirts boast "Born to Shop," and "retail therapy" is a way to forget one's troubles. The term "shopaholic," far from taboo, has become a catch phrase used to sell everything from mall-adjacent hotel rooms to novels ("Confessions of a Shopaholic") targeted at young women. But the Illinois case, like an early morning credit collector, has been a wake-up call. Too much shopping can be a problem.

"Lots of people use shopping to feel good, but people who do it compulsively feel out of control if they don't do it, and guilty when they do," said Robert Galatzer-Levy, a psychiatrist on the faculty of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis and the University of Chicago. After examining Roach for her defense, he said in an interview, "she seldom used the things she shopped for or got pleasure from them."

Roach, who has declined all requests for interviews, racked up $500,000 in credit-card debt, buying a purse for $9,000, a belt buckle for $7,000, designer outfits and dozens of pairs of shoes, according to court documents. She paid the bills by padding her corporate expense accounts. Last year, federal prosecutors charged her with embezzling and related wire fraud, and she pleaded guilty. In the year she awaited sentencing, Roach paid back former employer the Arthur Andersen company (now known as Accenture), by selling stock and taking out a second mortgage on her condominium, Steinback said. The felony conviction could have landed her a sentence of up to 18 months in prison--if not for U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly's decision.

After reading corroborating opinions from four psychiatrists who examined Roach for the defense, and an independent psychiatrist paid for by the government, Kennelly found that her "diminished mental capacity" contributed to the commission of her crime. "In an effort to self-medicate, she engaged in compulsive behavior, namely shopping binges. She was not in any real way able to control that behavior," the judge said in his decision.

Because of her condition, she escaped jail time and was sentenced instead to five years' probation, six months of weekends confined to her home, six weeks in a Salvation Army work release center and a $30,000 fine. The judge forbade Roach to acquire new credit cards and required her to continue getting psychiatric counseling.

But Assistant U.S. Atty. Joel Levin isn't buying "her condition" or her right to any leniency in sentencing. He's readying an appeal.

Roach is a woman who on the surface appears to have it all, according to court documents. With bachelor's and master's degrees, she has been employed in a succession of consulting jobs that have earned her ever increasing salaries--$150,000 when she worked as an "experienced manager and associate partner" for Andersen and $175,000 in her current position at Computer Science Corp. She is married to attorney Michael C. Roach, who specializes in health care and privacy law, and they live in a condo that's within walking distance of Chicago's tony Michigan Avenue shopping district.

History of Depression

But behind her success lurks a disturbed little girl, according to court documents. Roach, whose parents were divorced, was sexually molested by a relative during adolescence, has suffered from bulimia, and at various times has tried to burn herself with cigarettes. Throughout her childhood, the only way her emotionally distant father would show his love was by giving her his credit cards.

"I certainly can be fooled, but this lady breaks your heart," Steinback said. "She has a history of horrendous depression. But for the fact that she is a practicing Catholic, and suicide is a sin, I'm not sure she would still be here."

According to psychiatrists' reports submitted to the court, Roach began to shop compulsively to relieve her emotional pain during college. When she was married to her first husband, she would buy groceries with a check, writing it for $50 or $60 over the purchase amount to pay for her shopping binges. There were occasions when her husband tried to prevent her from using the checkbook or credit cards, but Roach would just apply for new credit cards and have bills sent to her office or to friends' houses. Even after marrying her second husband, Roach still had to borrow money from relatives to pay her bills despite their combined income of $300,000, reports said.

She had no record of criminal activity until Feb. 17, 1999, when she was arrested in the shoplifting of clothes from Neiman Marcus. She pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge and was sentenced to two years' probation. Roach told her probation officer that she had been in therapy for depression on and off since college and that she had been treated with antidepressants. In an interview with one of the defense's evaluating psychiatrists, she reported that her compulsion contributed to the demise of her first marriage, which ended in 1985. At the time, she owned 70 pairs of shoes and numerous purses and jackets but still felt "compelled to go shopping every Saturday" and "would sneak purchases home and hide them."

Compulsive shopping is not listed in the bible of psychiatric conditions, the Diagnostic and Standards Manual for the Psychiatric Assn. But it is taken seriously by mental health professionals as one of several ways people attempt to self-medicate broader disorders such as depression. (Other ways include alcohol consumption, compulsive eating, gambling or sexual activity.) Research has shown that these behaviors may temporarily increase levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that determines the severity of depression.

The preoccupation with purchasing unneeded items has been estimated to affect 2% but may affect as much as 8% of the American population, according to data from Stanford University Medical Center. Clothing and accessories are the most typically purchased items, although household objects, gifts and food are also common. Women are more likely than men to be compulsive shoppers by a ratio of 9 to 1. And women, attorney Steinback said, have also been more sympathetic to Roach's condition.

Methods of treatment include psychotherapy, 12-step programs and antidepressants. Last year, Stanford's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences completed a study that suggested the antidepressant Citalopram could specifically relieve symptoms of shopaholism. Twenty-one subjects with unpaid shopping-related debts of up to $40,000, were given the drug for 12 weeks. They reported a loss of interest in shopping and more purchase-less shopping trips. But the study, which included no placebo control, was funded by the pharmaceutical company that makes Citalopram, so it sparked suspicion that the very commercial forces driving people to compulsively spend were attempting to create another way to profit from it.

Another Opinion

Not everyone is convinced that the condition has merit in a court of law, either. "This is the abuse excuse writ large," said James Q. Wilson, professor emeritus at UCLA and author of "Moral Judgment: Does the Abuse Excuse Threaten Our Legal System?" "By admitting the excuse, we permit the crime. Admitting that someone's shopping addiction led them to buy expensive belt buckles is tantamount to letting someone who is moody or irritable steal at will."

U.S. Assistant Atty. Levin agrees. If Roach is entitled to a break in sentencing, then there are hundreds, if not thousands, of shopaholics who would be entitled to breaks for monetary crimes they may commit, whether they be embezzlement, fraud or forgery, he wrote in a memo opposing the judge's opinion.

But ultimately, an outbreak of shopaholic defenses isn't likely, because the circumstances of Roach's case aren't easily duplicated, said Myrna Raeder, professor at Southwestern University School of Law and former chairwoman for the American Bar Assn.'s criminal justice section. Because Roach's crimes placed her under federal jurisdiction and sentencing guidelines, the judge was allowed to take into account her mental condition to decrease her sentence.

Most crimes associated with compulsive shopping, such as shoplifting, would typically be handled by state courts under different sentencing procedures, Raeder said. "Are there other shopaholics out there? Probably. Are there other shopaholics out there who are going to be in federal court? Not so many," she said. "More than anything, this seems to be a victory for white women who are of a particular socioeconomic grouping."

After Roach was caught, her six-figure salary afforded her the benefit of being able to summon the best lawyers and experts to make her case. "A poor person would not have been able to make this presentation," defense attorney Steinback said. "But that doesn't mean someone with means shouldn't be able to."

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