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The Legal Legacy of Superstorm Sandy Looting

“Kick ‘em while they’re down” may have been the motto of some New Jersey residents who were involved in looting during and after Superstorm Sandy.  Reports vary from numerous isolated incidents of break-ins, trespassing, and burglary of vacant businesses and homes, to at least one report of an all-out rampage of crowds destroying restaurants.

New Jersey law recognizes various crimes against persons and property, such as trespassing, burglary, theft and robbery.  Penalties increase in severity depending on the value of the property stolen or damaged.  Currently, however, the crime’s severity does not increase if the perpetrator preys on the weak and defenseless during a declared state of emergency.

For this reason, State Senator Barbara Buono has introduced legislation that would increase the possible penalties of these crimes if committed during an official state of emergency.  The aim of increased severity of penalties is to punish those who take advantage of a those already victimized by the disaster. Disaster victims who fear that their property will be looted often stay to protect it, and in so doing, endanger their lives.  Increased penalties for looting are designed to both deter potential looters and provide peace of mind to property owners who need to focus on saving their lives rather than their possessions.

Until the legislation takes effect, looters will still face harsh legal consequences.  Burglary, for example, is a third degree offense, carrying a prison term of three to five years, and a fine of up to $15,000.

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