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the Complete Review
the complete review - law

Thirteen Ways to
Steal a Bicycle

Stuart P. Green

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To purchase Thirteen Ways to Steal a Bicycle

Title: Thirteen Ways to Steal a Bicycle
Author: Stuart P. Green
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2012
Length: 276 pages
Availability: Thirteen Ways to Steal a Bicycle - US
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  • Theft Law in the Information Age

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Our Assessment:

B+ : very thorough overview; useful if specialized discussion

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Stuart P. Green did not title his book Thirteen Ways to Steal a Bicycle in the hope of attracting those seeking a how-to book (though one does wonder how many will order it in the mistaken belief that's what they'd be getting -- it's surprising that no snarky Amazon reviews have been posted yet ...). Rather, as he notes in his brief Preface, it refers to the thirteen: "different ways of stealing bikes and bike-related property that are mentioned in the book" -- and beyond that:

The main sense of the title is metaphorical: It is meant to convey the messy complexity that characterizes theft law's moral content, of which this book seeks to make sense.
       As Green makes clear from the outset (and as the title suggests), 'theft' is a considerably more complex concept than it might first appear. There are a wide variety of forms of what might be considered theft, and given how widespread it is, how society and the law deal with it are significant issues.
       In particular, Green writes in reaction to the Model Penal Code (adopted in 1962 by the American Law Institute), as well as other common law jurisdiction revisions of the law of theft, such as the English Theft Act 1968. These were attempts to reform (and essentially streamline) what had become an arguably great muddle of theft law under common law (by then a: "piecemeal collection of seemingly arbitrary, overly technical, loophole-ridded legal rules"). But Green wants to make the case that: "in making such changes, the theft law reformers threw out the baby with the bathwater" -- specifically in losing: "key moral distinctions concerning the means by which theft is committed and the kinds of property stolen".
       (It should be noted that the MPC has not been universally adopted by the states of the US (unlike the Theft Act, which became the law of the land overnight); nevertheless, it has been very influential even in states that have not adopted its approach wholesale.)
       These theft law reforms ostensibly simplified the law, paring down the law; as Green notes, however, basic distinctions found under common law (and then eliminated in, for example, the MPC) can also be found in other legal systems, despite these having no connection to English common law -- suggesting there's more to these distinctions than the MPC (and Theft Act) framers were willing to acknowledge. (Green notes that those drafting the MPC seem to: "have made almost no attempt to think comparatively", ignoring foreign law almost entirely even where foreign experience might have proved useful or illuminating (a narrow-mindedness of American legal practitioners and theoreticians (and Supreme Court justices ...) that has a long and, sadly, still lasting tradition).)
       Green argues that the consolidation of so many different common law offenses into, essentially, a single one of theft under the MPC, had: "the effect of flattening or homogenizing the moral content of theft law" -- which, in turn, he finds (and demonstrates) can have unfortunate and unintended consequences. As suggested by experience, but also by a study of 172 first year law students that he discusses here, people are inclined to think of different forms of theft as being of different orders of 'blameworthiness'. Armed robbery is understandably found to be very bad; failing to return misdelivered property not so much. Similarly, stealing a physical books was widely considered more blameworthy than downloading an e-version. Obviously, sentencing guidelines can and do help distinguish seriousness of offenses -- but Green makes a good case that that is often not sufficient or really a desirable way of making the entire distinction.
       In Thirteen Ways to Steal a Bicycle Green painstakingly considers the different forms of theft (and of property -- as the information age now complicates the question of what constitutes property that can be stolen) and how the law treats them (now, and in the past, and in different jurisdictions (with a strong focus on American law, however)). It is more critique than blueprint, as Green considers the consequences of various approaches; in some cases he comes down firmly in favor (or opposition) to one approach or another, but clearly the book is meant to be the basis for argument and discussion, rather than a final statement on theft law.
       This is very much a law book, full of the hypotheticals (and, often, real cases) that show just how tricky it can be to properly formulate law. In taking into closer account social norms, Green adds a useful additional perspective (and a welcome one: law is not abstract, but rather has to do -- especially in the case of theft -- with the everyday and personal) -- but one that also further complicates the question of how to deal with theft. As he notes, for example, in many jurisdictions separate legislation dealing with shoplifting has developed, for reasons including the particular peculiar nature of much shoplifting (as he notes, an extraordinary percentage of the population has engaged in it at some point), as often shoplifting isn't at all like any sort of traditional theft.
       As Green also observes, the nature of property subject to theft has also changed in the half century since the MPC was adopted, as information -- from medical records to 'identity' to downloadable entertainment -- is now often subject to 'theft', rather than just more tangible goods. Clearly, a revision of law is needed to properly address many of these, and Green's discussion is a good starting point for debate on the matter.
       Though very accessible -- with most readers certainly able to relate to the many, many examples he goes through -- Thirteen Ways to Steal a Bicycle is still a specialist book. This is a close and thorough look at theft law, and that means Green considers and picks apart situation after situation after situation. His thoroughness is commendable and welcome, but the lay-reader might find it somewhat overwhelming. On the other hand, law students and practitioners, as well as legislators (in particular !) should find it an exceptionally rewarding work on the subject.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 September 2012

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Thirteen Ways to Steal a Bicycle: Stuart P. Green: Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:

       Stuart P. Green teaches at Rutgers School of Law - Newark.

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