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Can You Be Arrested for Violating an Evacuation Order?

By Arin E. Berkson, J.D. | Last updated on

Wildfires in California, tropical storms and hurricanes in Florida, and a train derailment in Ohio have all forced authorities to issue mandatory evacuation orders. While these evacuation orders are intended to save lives, not everyone complies.

So what happens if you stick around? Could police arrest you for disobeying a mandatory evacuation order?

Authority To Issue Evacuation Orders

No one wants to be forced to leave their home. But the root of evacuation orders is to protect the people, and state and local governments are allowed to create and enforce emergency management regulations that promote public safety.

All states have statutes that give their governors power to issue evacuation orders in the face of imminent threats, such as severe weather, fire, or a chemical spill. The federal government has similar powers. Often, a state will work with the federal government to coordinate the response to an emergency.

What Happens if You Refuse to Leave?

In addition to the power to issue evacuation orders, state laws grant the government power to enforce the orders. Courts in every state have upheld these statutes.

Enforcement and penalties for violating evacuation orders vary by state. For example, In Texas, a local government official may authorize law enforcement to remove people from an evacuated area. In Florida and North Carolina, a person can be charged with a second-degree misdemeanor for violating an evacuation order.

Despite statutory penalties for failing to comply with evacuation orders, few people are arrested or charged with a crime for noncompliance. More often, arrests that happen related to an evacuation are for burglars taking advantage of empty homes or those trying to get a closer glimpse of a disaster.

The Consequences of Staying Put

Some state laws have exceptions to evacuation orders if you stay on your own property. In Louisiana, a person can remain in their home despite a mandatory evacuation order. However, the statute makes it clear that people who stay home during a tropical storm or another local emergency risk not being rescued by first responders or provided with emergency services.

Other jurisdictions have turned to creative means to get people in the evacuation zone to comply with orders. In 2005, Virginia rescue workers gave those resisting an evacuation order magic markers to write their Social Security numbers on their bodies so they could be identified after a hurricane. In 2011, Connecticut officials made holdouts during Hurricane Irene sign a no-rescue waiver.

What if You Can’t Leave on Your Own?

Everyone should have an emergency evacuation plan. If you are in a situation where you can’t evacuate on your own due to a disability or other special needs, some additional emergency preparedness is required. People with special needs are advised to register with their local emergency management agency or statewide special needs registry to receive assistance during a disaster.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Even though you might not get thrown in jail for refusing to leave an evacuation zone, you should comply with an evacuation order — not only are you putting your own life in danger by failing to comply, you may be endangering first responders who put their lives at risk in the wake of disasters.

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