Flooding and cyclone Yasi recently devastated Queensland. Many people lost their personal property, valuables and their homes. Another pressure the community faced in the aftermath of these disasters was uncertainty about the security of the property left in their homes and businesses against looters. Following the incidents of looting that occurred after the floods and Yasi, it may be useful to become familiar with the elements and penalties associated with this offence.
The Queensland criminal code recognises it is a more serious offence to take advantage of people during natural disasters. Looting is considered the offence of stealing with the aggravating element of being committed during a natural disaster, civil unrest or industrial dispute. Stealing during a natural disaster can attract a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment, double the 5 year maximum for the general offence of stealing.
“Disaster” is defined in section 13 of the Disaster Management Act 2003 as “a serious disruption in a community… where there is loss of human life and widespread or severe loss and damage to property and the environment.”
In order to convict a person of the offence of looting, it must be proven beyond reasonable doubt that:
There is also an offence under section 398(5) of the criminal code of “stealing by finding”. Even if property appears to be lost or abandoned due to the floods, or any other natural disaster, persons other than the owner are not entitled to take it for their own benefit. There is a positive requirement on a person who “finds” property, to hand it into the authorities.
There are a number of defences under the criminal code available to persons charged with looting. Under section 22(2) a person will not be criminally liable if they had an honest claim of right to the property. Section 24 states that a person who acts under an honest and reasonable mistake of fact will not be criminally responsible to any greater extent than if the real situation had been such as the person believed to exist.
When imposing a penalty for looting, the courts will take into account deterrence to the individual and the community. If you are convicted of looting, you can expect little sympathy from the court when sentencing, and more than likely impose a significant punishment which could include imprisonment.