We are all familiar with a number of major natural disasters across the globe in recent years. From the 2004 tsunami, to the New Orleans hurricane of 2005, the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, Chile’s 2010 earthquake, and the recent floods in Queensland and NSW; nature occasionally wreaks havoc on human lives.
And sadly, following a natural disaster there are often those willing to take advantage of other people’s misfortunes for their own personal gain. Looters; that sad element of society prepared to steal the property of evacuated and absent victims.
Recent reports of looting in Queensland have many Australians infuriated. Some Queenslanders have been loath to evacuate their homes for fear of looters, and a special police task force has been set up to protect homes and businesses in flood-affected areas.
So what penalties can looters expect if they get caught?
Queensland’s Criminal Code Act prescribes a 5 year prison sentence for stealing. But there is also a specific offence for looting; if someone steals during a natural disaster they’re liable to imprisonment for 10 years.
In NSW, larceny, or stealing someone else’s property, carries a five year jail sentence. Interestingly, the NSW Crimes Act doesn’t have a specific offence for looting. While there is a 10 year jail sentence for stealing from a ship that is wrecked or in distress, or any property belonging to that ship, there is no offence for stealing from homes similarly “distressed” due to a natural disaster.
So does this mean that people caught looting in NSW flood-hit towns will get a lesser penalty than looters in Queensland?
Not necessarily. NSW’s Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Act gives Courts the power to impose harsher sentences when there are aggravating factors. Some examples include causing substantial emotional harm, loss or damage; or when an offense was committed for financial gain. Presumably there would be some scope for NSW courts to dish out penalties for looters equal to Queensland’s.
And while it’s one thing to loot property that is floating down the street, “break and enter” offences in NSW and QLD carry tougher penalties than just stealing. Whether these could be applied to looters would depend on the circumstances. (For more information, please see our 2023 article High Court rules it’s not “break and enter” if the intruder’s name is on the lease.)
If the front door of a home has floated away, is it breaking in? It’s certainly “entering” with the likely intent of stealing. In NSW, breaking into a home with the intent of committing a serious crime, such as larceny, can carry a 10 year prison sentence.
It will be interesting to see if NSW decides to amend the Crimes Act to include an offence for looting during a natural disaster, which could have the effect of making sentencing more straightforward.
In any case, looters be warned; the penalties will likely be tough.