What Is Considered Looting in California?

Know How It Is Legally Defined and the Penalties Involved

A commonly cited example of looting is the fallout of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, in which acquittals of Los Angeles police officers accused of excessive force in their arrest of Rodney King led to widespread unrest for several days. Reports of looting have also been the subject of news headlines in recent months following countrywide protests surrounding the death of George Floyd and other black Americans.

Many misunderstand what looting is and the punishments involved if convicted. Below, we cover California’s definitions and the act’s potential consequences.

California’s Definition of Looting

Per California Penal Code 463, “looting” consists of any acts of burglary or theft, either petty theft or grand theft, in the midst of a local or statewide emergency. A governing entity, often the mayor or governor, can declare a state of emergency for numerous reasons, either covering a focused, impacted area (like a city or county) or the entire state, depending on the extent of their authority.

Typically, a state of emergency will be instituted if an event impacts the ability of essential services to operate efficiently. This can include food supplies, ambulances, and firefighters, among others. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, is one such emergency. California Governor Newsom declared a public health emergency on March 4, 2020, and that status has not been lifted as of this writing.

Events that can trigger local or statewide emergencies include:

  • Pandemics
  • Uncontrolled Wildfires
  • Severe Storms
  • Flooding
  • Earthquakes
  • Civil Unrest and Riots

Some exclusively and mistakenly associate looting with images of people breaking into stores amidst some sort of obvious and ongoing chaos. If you commit any petty theft, grand theft, or burglary during a state of emergency, you risk being charged with looting. This includes the state of emergency related to COVID-19, meaning you could theoretically be charged with looting for any theft or burglary committed so long as the pandemic continues.

California Penalties for Looting

The extent of consequences if convicted of looting is dependent on the scope of the crime. The more severe the underlying charge – petty theft, grand theft, or burglary – the more severe the punishment.

Petty theft is defined as the stealing of items with a combined value under $950. Combined with looting, you will be charged with a misdemeanor crime. If convicted, you could serve a maximum of 6 months in prison, up to $1,000 in fines, and as many as 80 hours of community service.

Looting via grand theft or burglary is considered a “wobbler” crime, meaning you could be charged for a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the specifics of your case and sometimes the discretion of the prosecution. If you have an existing criminal record, you are more likely to be charged with a felony. Grand theft involves stealing items valued at over $950, a vehicle, or a firearm. Regardless of how you are charged, you face a minimum of 180 days in prison. Misdemeanor convictions carry a maximum 1 year in prison, while felonies can net you up to 3 years.

If you steal a firearm, you will automatically be charged with a felony crime. Like other instances of felony looting, you can face up to 3 years in prison.

We Can Help If You Have Been Accused of Looting

Looting is a serious offense and one you should not face alone. At Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP, we have over 50 years of combined legal experience helping Californians fight criminal charges. With COVID-19 creating a perpetual state of emergency throughout the state, it is possible you may be erroneously accused of looting in situations where the charge is not warranted. We can review the facts of your case, represent you in court, and fight to give you the best possible legal defense.

Schedule a free consultation to see how we can help you by calling (800) 462-7160 or contacting us online.