On Tuesday, Consumerist ran a piece, under the tag “STUPID,” called, “Man Jailed After Forgetting Case Of Soda Underneath Shopping Cart.” The post described how poor Tom Sturgis was asked for his receipt on his way out of the grocery store, as he pushed a cart full of groceries with, as he described it, a four-dollar case of soda under the cart. When his receipt failed to show that he paid for the pop, he was arrested.

Of course, it was entirely obvious to Consumerist that Sturgis had simply forgotten all about the pop, as we all either have or almost have. He checked out, he forgot to pay for what was stashed under the cart, and NOW HE GOT ARRESTED! Consumerist went on:

Robbing a bank? The Great Case Of Pop Robbery Of ’08? Yes, I’m sure the guy’s grand plan was to buy over a hundred dollars worth of groceries as a cover for his brilliant $4 pop theft.

We humbly suggest that this police officer is not very good at his job.

What followed were (at last count) 247 comments in which Consumerist readers expressed disgust at “rent-a-cops,” railed at stores actually expecting you to demonstrate that you have PAID for the merchandise with which you are leaving the store before you leave with it, recommended email bombs aimed at everyone who worked for the city where the man was arrested, made countless personal comments about the idiocy of the security officer, explained how the customer clearly had an unassailable legal case should he choose to sue the officer and the store, and basically operated on the absolutely credulous assumption that Sturgis was a man railroaded by an inept system.

And then…oh. Oops. Security tapes demonstrated that Sturgis paid for his groceries and then, on his way out, stopped and stole six cases of pop, and the security guard caught him, and that’s why he was arrested.

My point here isn’t really to slag Consumerist, which is a very valuable site that very often helps people get satisfaction in situations where they otherwise couldn’t. I understand how this happens. But imagine what would have happened if the store hadn’t had surveillance footage. They could have protested until they turned blue in their collective corporate face, and there would still have been Consumerist commenters who would happily have posted the home address of the security guard if they could’ve found it, just to see that he was punished for his terribly unfair act. It’s only the video that led to this ending.

What I’m saying, really, is that it’s a reminder to everyone — me included — who reads and reacts to things, that whenever you hear one person telling a story, it’s enormously important to remember that it’s that person’s version of what happened. People who are being held accountable for their actions are not trustworthy reporters of what they did wrong. While I understand that the lie belongs to Sturgis, the fact that it was apparently swallowed whole by Consumerist, and by many of its commenters, without the slightest hint of skepticism, belongs to them. Everyone seemed to say, “Hey, this guy claims that he’s entirely blameless and the other party behaved entirely irrationally. What an outrage that he’s entirely blameless and the other party behaved so irrationally!”

There’s no particularly complex confabulation here, either. The guy didn’t produce false evidence (other than his own story) or prove the officer was otherwise incompetent or anything that should have negated the general obligation to be cautious in evaluating his claim. All he did was say he was innocent, and he received the benefit of an absolute and ironclad assumption that he was.

During my legal career, I worked on both criminal cases and employment cases, and let me tell you — when you hear something like, “Nobody would pay for $150 in groceries and then steal soda,” don’t you believe it. You cannot imagine the ridiculous, illogical, self-destructive, easily discovered, counterintuitive, generally wackadoo things that people will do until you see a hundred files cross your desk in which they did them. In Oregon, I worked on a case where a guy got killed over chemicals that his “friends” were planning to make into meth, and none of his “friends” knew that you couldn’t make meth from that kind of chemical. People do idiotic things all the time, and one of the most common ways they defend themselves is pretty much, “That’s idiotic; therefore, I would not have done it.”

And then you see yet ANOTHER person who cannot manage to learn that he should enjoy his adult sites AT HOME, and not AT WORK. Or a person who doesn’t understand that if you leave on your delivery route with 25 cases of beer, you deliver 10, and you return to work with five undelivered, somebody at some point is going to say, “I wonder what happened to the other ten cases of beer.”

The point I’m trying to make is this: before you roast the cop or the boss or the other “bad guy” alive, make sure you aren’t doing it on the assumption that in all cop-citizen, boss-employee, or similar confrontation, the cop/boss is lying if the citizen/employee says so. That poor security guard did his job precisely as he was supposed to, and for it, he got 200 people calling for his head. The store was able to prove with a video that he was in the right this time, but how often do you suppose this happens and there’s no opportunity for public vindication?

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