Capt. Caleb Breshears

Capt. Caleb Breshears, of the Victoria Police Department.

AUSTIN – The Victoria Police Department is supporting legislation to strengthen penalties for looting during a disaster or in an evacuated area, citing the city’s increase in looting after Hurricane Harvey.

Capt. Caleb Breshears, of the department’s patrol division, testified March 4 before the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee in favor of House Bill 1028, which would increase the penalty for looting during a disaster from a Class A misdemeanor to a first-degree felony.

Breshears said Victoria residents evacuated the area as parts of the city lost power for more than a week, leaving their homes vulnerable to increased chances of looting.

“I not only worked through the aftermaths of Hurricane Harvey, but I also lived through it,” Breshears said. “One of the greatest assets law enforcement has are the citizens helping us identify and respond to the crimes. Now imagine that the people are no longer there to protect their property and their neighbors, and criminals are out taking advantage of citizens whose lives have been devastated.”

No statistics about looting during Hurricane Harvey were presented during testimony at the committee hearing.

HB 1028 was filed by Texas Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, who said the penal code currently allows for increased penalties for other crimes during a state of disaster, but not looting. Guillen said the bill was not his idea, but that local law enforcement suggested it to him.

“Currently ... the Penal Code contain increases in penalties during a state of disaster for things like assault or robbery causing injury, burglary of a habitation or building, and theft depriving or property,” Guillen said. “However, if someone, during a state of disaster, were to steal a vehicle or rob a coin collection machine ... it would not receive that increased penalty.”

Guillien said both vehicles and coin collection machines are highly vulnerable during disasters, although he did not procure any supporting data. Looting currently carries a Class A misdemeanor charge, punishable by up to a year in prison and up to a $4,000 fine, whereas a first-degree felony – Guillen’s suggested penalty – carries 5-99 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.

“A 2010 study by Louisiana State University examining city crime after Hurricane Rita identified a significant short-term increase in small burglaries and auto theft,” Guillen said. “With the implementation of House Bill 1028, those crimes would be increased to the next higher level of offense during a state of emergency. This change will hopefully encourage more people to focus on the help needed to rebuild after a disaster rather than taking advantage of a vulnerable situation in our state.”

Breshears said he and his department think that the increased penalties in HB 1028 will deter people from looting and will also help the justice system hold those people accountable for “taking advantage of victims who have had their whole lives upended by the disaster.”

“Whenever a community is hit like this, looters or persons that are coming to take advantage of this ... don’t care what they’re grabbing,” Breshears said. “They’ll grab anything. Unfortunately, that also entails irreplaceable memorabilia and stuff like that, so by enhancing the penalties, it will hopefully deter and also help these people get justice.”

Members of the Texas Municipal League registered in support of the bill but did not testify. The league’s Executive Director Bennett Sandlin said many of the organization member cities struggled after Hurricane Harvey.

“Things like hurricanes and other disasters put a strain on law enforcement and invite looting and other behaviors where the police are busy helping people with recovery,” Sandlin said. “Tightening up the criminal restrictions during those times or in those areas just seemed like a smart thing to do.”

No one registered in opposition of HB 1028, which was left pending in committee, where it has not yet been voted on by the members. It is unclear when the bill will be on the committee’s agenda next.

Katie Balevic is a journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin, where she is also a legislative reporter for The Daily Texan.

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