One of the more unfortunate collateral aspects of a natural disaster or in cases of an urban riot is the scene of widespread looting of neighborhood and department stores by people taking advantage of the lack of a law enforcement presence and the general chaos that surrounds such events.

California has been the scene of looting following a number of urban riots or earthquakes and its legislature has sought to punish those who seek to steal during times when local authorities are unable to provide security to prevent lawless behavior. Those individuals who engage in stealing from stores and businesses during a declared period of disaster are subject to certain penalties.

What is the Looting Law?

Under California Penal Code Section 463, looting consists of the following:

  • The commission of any kind of theft–petty, grand, commercial or of firearms
  • During a state of emergency or local emergency

The statutory definition of a “state of emergency” is as follows:

“…conditions which, by reason of their magnitude, are, or are likely to be, beyond the control of the services, personnel, equipment, and facilities of any single county, city and county, or city and require the combined forces of a mutual aid region or regions to combat.”

These conditions include an emergency or state of emergency following an earthquake, fire, riot or other disasters regardless if they are natural or manmade. A state of emergency can be declared by the governor or by any city or count’s governing council or body. If an official authorized to make the declaration does so, the emergency continues to be in force for not more than 7 days unless ratified by the governing body of the county or city.

Penalties for Looting

Anyone who is arrested for looting can be charged with either a misdemeanor or felony, meaning that the looting law is a “wobbler.” You face either degree of the crime depending on your conduct, circumstances of the charge and your past criminal history if any. In many cases, if you are caught carrying away large expensive items or firearms, the chances are more likely that you will be charged with a felony.

If a misdemeanor, you face up to one year in county jail and a fine up to $1,000. For those convicted of felony looting, you face anywhere from 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years in state prison. A felony conviction also carries a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 90 or 180 days, unlike the underlying crimes for which you may have committed such as grand theft. Theft of a firearm carries a mandatory minimum of 180 days and up to 3 years in prison.

Defenses to Looting

The main defense to looting is that of misidentification. In many situations, the police will round up crowds of people who are looting including bystanders who are not participating in the crime.

If you were arrested with no stolen property in your possession or control, or if film of the looting indicates that you were a bystander observing the looting, then you may have a legitimate defense.

Immigration Consequences

Under federal immigration law, if you are an alien or permanent resident and you commit a crime of moral turpitude including looting, you may have serious immigration consequences. In some cases, you could face potential deportation and not be eligible for cancellation of removal relief.

Call the Law Offices of Ramiro J. Lluis

Facing a charge of looting or a related offense can result in serious prison time and have long range or permanent adverse consequences on your life. If you have been charged with looting, call the Law Offices of Ramiro J. Lluis today for a free, confidential initial consultation at (213) 687-4412.