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A hurricane just hit. An earthquake just rattled the earth. A protest just turned into a riot. The police are busy. Inevitably, you will see reports of stores being broken into, trashed, and looted.
What is looting? Is it a crime?
Not all states have laws that specifically address looting. Only Alabama, California, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina have laws specifically addressing looting. Of the states that do, the laws do vary.
Looting, generally, is the crime of stealing during a state of emergency or natural disaster caused by earthquake, hurricane, tornado, fire, or storm. To be convicted of looting, you must first be convicted of an underlying theft crime.
Punishments for Looting
Punishment for looting differs wildly from state to state.
In some states, looting is an enhancement to a theft crime that does not increase the maximum sentence of a theft.
In California, burglary in the second degree is punishable by a maximum of one-year imprisonment, with no minimum. So, a lucky person convicted of burglary could get only probation or a suspended sentence.
However, burglary during a state of emergency is looting, punishable by a maximum of one year in prison and a minimum of 180 days in jail. So even if a person only got probation for the underlying burglary, he could still have to serve at least 180 days in jail for the looting.
In Louisiana, the punishment for looting is much more severe.
Looting during a hurricane, flood, fire, act of god, riot, mob, or other emergency is punishable by a maximum fine up to $10,000 and a maximum of 15 years in prison.
However, looting that occurs during an officially declared state of emergency is punishable by a minimum fine of $5,000 and imprisonment of no less than three years and no more than 15 years, without benefit of probation, parole, or suspension of sentence.
After the looting during Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana's lawmakers made looting an especially serious crime with much more severe punishments than the underlying theft crime.
There are a few common defenses to looting including misidentification and necessity. If you have been charged with looting, an experienced local criminal defense attorney may be able to help.