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California Penal Code 463: Looting Laws in California

California PC 463

California Penal Code section 463 states, “Every person who violates Section 459, punishable as a second-degree burglary pursuant to subdivision (b) of Section 461, during and within an affected county in a ‘state of emergency’ or a ‘local emergency,’ or under an ‘evacuation order,’ resulting from an earthquake, fire, flood, riot, or other natural or manmade disaster shall be guilty of the crime of looting, punishable by imprisonment in a county jail for one year or pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170.”

What Constitutes the Crime of Looting Under California Law?

Looting is different than traditional theft or burglary in that it must be done during some type of emergency that is declared by a governing body. Basically all kinds of theft, no matter how severe, can be classified as looting if done under the necessary conditions. The crimes include:

  • Grand Theft (stealing more than $950 worth of items)
  • Petty Theft (stealing less than $950 worth of items)
  • Burglary (entering an uninhabited dwelling to steal or commit a felony)

The two types of emergencies where looting can occur are “state emergencies,” which can only be declared by the California governor, or “local emergencies,” which can be declared by local bodies. These emergencies are declared when an adverse event happens that is so severe, that the locality or state cannot handle it without outside assistance. These can include:

  • Wildfires
  • Riots
  • Floods
  • Earthquakes
  • Hurricanes
  • Blizzards

What Are the Punishments for Looting in California?

Looting is a “wobbler” offense in California, meaning that it can either be a misdemeanor or felony depending on the circumstances of the crime. The type of theft you committed, the value of the items stolen, and the type/severity of the emergency will all factor into the sentencing.

Petty theft looting is always a misdemeanor offense in California, and it can earn you:

  • Up to 6 months in a county jail
  • A maximum fine of $1,000
  • AND/OR up to 80 hours of community service

Committing looting by grand theft or burglary can either be a felony or misdemeanor. If charged as a misdemeanor, it can result in:

  • 1 year of jail time
  • A maximum fine of $1,000
  • AND/OR up to 240 hours of community service

As a felony, the punishments could be:

  • Up to 3 years in a county jail
  • A fine of up to $10,000
  • AND/OR up to 240 hours of community service

How Can I Defend Myself if I Am Charged With Looting?

Some potential defenses to a violation of PC 463 include:

  • You were accused of burglary when you did not intend to commit a crime
  • You were mistaken for someone else
  • You did not steal during a state of emergency

There are a lot of emergency situations that may require one to enter a dwelling that they should not be in. For example, a flood might force people on the street to take refuge in nearby stores and buildings. If you were entering these buildings without the intent to commit any crime, especially if you did so for your own safety, this could be a possible defense.

While being mistaken for someone else is a defense to basically any crime, it is especially relevant to looting. For instance, riots are a form of emergency where widespread looting is common. It is common for law enforcement, who are often overworked during states of emergency, to arrest people at riots and protests for crimes committed by other people there. If you can prove that you were not the one who committed the alleged crime, you would be innocent.

Lastly, if you did steal, but not during a state of emergency, you could avoid the harsher penalties for looting that are not the same for traditional theft. Say the state of emergency was ended the day before you committed petty theft, then you would only be guilty of petty theft rather than looting.

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