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How Hurricane Harvey Affected Looting Laws in Texas

Criminal Law Blog by The Law Office of Greg Tsioros

How Hurricane Harvey Affected Looting Laws in Texas

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Residents of Houston and surrounding counties are still struggling with the massive devastation left by Hurricane Harvey. Recent history—and historical recounts of previous natural disasters throughout the county—shows that a common pattern exists:

  • Destruction is caused by the disaster
  • Price gouging and looting result as people search for scarce commodities
  • Fraud is later committed by some who apply for assistance money

In the midst of the “worst,” we often see the best. Some risk their lives to save a family pet, neighbor, or stranger.

Others commit crimes. Of course, in a natural disaster, not all “crimes” may be deemed criminal. Editors around the country rightfully ask, “Is taking food in a natural disaster a crime?”

We don’t know the answer. Those who face criminal charges after Hurricane Harvey are likely to face even greater prosecutorial wrath than usual.

Are you facing criminal charges after Hurricane Harvey?
Contact experienced defense attorney Greg Tsioros today

Looting, Scams, Theft, and Burglary Crimes Mean Mandatory Jail Time after Harvey

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, lawmakers have reported that looting was widespread in Houston. As law enforcement sought to protect the lives and property of Houstonians, those charged with looting, theft, burglary, or other crimes face mandatory jail time.

Other scammers, posing as relief organizations on Facebook, are accused of fraudulently stealing money from kindhearted folks who want to help their neighbors.

Looters and Price-Gougers May Face Felony Charges

Looting or burglary during a natural disaster can have serious repercussions. Some people consider the possible misfortunes of others as a chance to “loot,” steal, or burglarize them. In the recent severe hurricane season, those in greater Houston and surrounding counties faced possible victimization by looters and price gougers—in addition to many other issues they grappled with in the devastation left behind.

As our local area was declared a state of emergency, a person who commits a looting or burglary crime may face a first-degree felony charge.

Officials throughout the region announced that they’d make it much more difficult for those who broke into businesses or homes for the purposes of stealing. The Texas State Attorney General said there’d be zero tolerance for those convicted of looting and similar crimes. Looters in a variety of locations stole firearms—reports say that almost 100 guns were stolen from area stores.

Consequences of Stealing in a Natural Disaster

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, those who committed burglary, looting, price gouging, etc., face severe punishments. In the days immediately following the hurricane, law enforcement and others focused on protecting members of the community from burglars and looters who had more opportunities to take valuables from businesses and homes that didn’t belong to them.

Price Gouging and Hurricane Harvey

According to reports, price gouging was widespread during the most recent natural disaster. Houston police received upwards of 8,000 complaints of businesses’ increasing the prices of food, fuel, and shelter. Some reported that airlines participating in alleged price gouging:

  • Houstonians placed more than 500 complaints in the two days following Hurricane Harvey’s landfall, including hotel room rates’ tripled or quadrupled prices and $99 for bottled water!

During recent floods in Houston, as thousands fled their homes and shuttered their businesses, the spirit of community was everywhere. Most Houstonians helped their neighbors. Some invited strangers into their homes.

Unfortunately, not all residents of Houston demonstrated selfless reactions. Looting and price-gouging happened. Curfews were implemented to restore law and order and to “prevent criminal activity.”

Mayor Sylvester Turner reported that the total number of criminal incidents in flooded areas were unknown. The Harris County District Attorney’s Office said that 14 alleged looters were arrested in a 48-hour period. Those convicted face more substantial penalties if convicted of breaking the law in a disaster area.

Criminal Behaviors “Won’t be Tolerated”

Local and state government said these behaviors wouldn’t be tolerated. For instance, burglarizing a flooded home or business might mean five years to life behind bars instead of a two to 20-year prison term:

  • Federal authorities warned residents to beware of fraudsters posing as federal agents from Homeland Security. These individuals knocked on doors to inform residents to vacate the property immediately. Department of Homeland Security theorized that the imposters wanted to more freedom to rob these empty properties.
  • The Houston Chronicle reported group arrests at a liquor store and a shopping center.

Various news outlets reported price gouging. According to the Texas Attorney General’s office, hotels raised room rates, gas stations and convenience marts raised gas prices to $100/gallon, and bread was sold for $15 a loaf:

  • The Texas AG’s Office said that offenders face up to $25,000 in penalties per incident, or $250,000 if the victim is age 65 or older.

Probation and Leniency: “Off the Table”

The Houston Chronicle reported that the Montgomery County District Attorney warned that burglars, looters, thieves, or similar caught taking advantaged of victimized area residents would face mandatory jail time with “probation off the table.” Those convicted of crimes committed during Hurricane Harvey face penalty enhancements as well.

After Businesses and Homes Are Repaired

Media outlets say that lawmakers anticipate criminal activity long after brick and mortar homes and businesses are restored. For instance:

  • Fraudulent Social Security and Medicare activity significantly increased after the last three hurricanes.
  • After Hurricane Sandy, hundreds of residents were convicted of falsely claiming that vacation homes were primary residences.
  • In Alabama, residents filed dozens of fraudulent claims for disaster assistance after Hurricane Katrina. Some filed multiple claims in different states.
  • Fraudulent FEMA claims were estimated in the billions of dollars after Katrina.

Although FEMA officials say that most fraud goes undetected and prosecuted, those charged and convicted of fraud crimes following a hurricane face stricter sentencing and longer jail times.

Experienced Houston TX Criminal Defense Attorney

Hurricane Harvey was a terrifying experience for Houston and surrounding areas in Southeast Texas. Those accused a looting, theft, price-gouging, or burglary crimes during a natural disaster are likely to face even greater punishments if convicted.

Recognize that you are innocent until proven guilty under Texas law. If you or someone you care about is facing a criminal charge, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney in Houston now. Understand that the stakes are higher than ever before. Attorney Greg Tsioros has both the experience and track record you need. Contact The Law Office of Greg Tsioros at 832-753-5972 to schedule an initial case review.

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