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How serious is the crime of looting?

Looting is always a problem after a major natural disaster, Some people suddenly think that the normal laws regarding property and ownership stop applying and that anything that's available can simply be taken.

Various cities around the country are taking a new, tougher approach to looters these days. Since Florida is likely to be hit any time now with Hurricane Irma, it seems like this is a good time to discuss looting and the law -- before you do something you'll end up regretting later.

Some people loot to survive -- grabbing necessities like food and water in true emergency situations. Those people aren't in the same category as those who take advantage of the chaos and evacuations to break into wealthier residences (or even their neighbors' homes) or the local stores to make off with everything from television sets to jewelry.

In the wake of the massive floods caused by Harvey, Houston and surrounding jurisdictions are promising mandatory jail time and active prosecution -- and they're being surprisingly effective at it. Aided by security cameras (which often continue operating even in the fiercest storms) and tips from witnesses, police are actively arresting the looters -- even while the flood waters are still rolling.

You can expect the same to happen in Florida if Hurricane Irma (or the next natural disaster) causes a new wave of destruction along the coast.

In Florida, looting is charged as a crime of theft -- but there are special provisions in the law when the theft happens during a declared state of emergency -- almost all thefts, except for the most trivial, are automatically classified as felonies. Previous convictions for theft can turn even a trivial theft during a state of emergency into a felony act as well.

Draw your lessons from what's happening in Houston and avoid the temptation to loot, even if the items are just there for the taking. However, if you do find yourself accused of looting during a natural disaster, get legal help immediately. There may be possible defenses for your situation -- such as mistaken identity or if you took only what was necessary to survive -- but you need an attorney to advise you in order to avoid a felony conviction.

Source: Fox News, "Houston combating Harvey looters with mandatory jail time," Aug. 29, 2017

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