Mr Judge, the Independent member for Yeerongpilly in Queensland has introduced the Criminal Code (Looting in Declared Areas) Amendment Bill into the Queensland parliament. The Bill, if passed, would provide a maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment for anyone found ‘looting’ in a declared area.

The proposed amendment says:

13A Stealing by looting in a declared area
If the offence is committed in an area that at the time of the commission of the offence is a declared area under the Disaster Management Act 2003, the offender is liable to imprisonment for 14 years.

This adds the penalty of 10 years for stealing during a natural disaster or where ‘the thing stolen is left unattended by the death or incapacity of the person’ who was in possession of the property stolen (Criminal Code 1899 (Qld) s 398(13)).

Under the Disaster Management Act 2003 (Qld) s 69, the Minister and Premier may:

declare a disaster situation for the State, or a part of the State, if satisfied—

(a) a disaster has happened, is happening or is likely to happen, in the State; and
(b) it is necessary, or reasonably likely to be necessary, for a district disaster coordinator or a declared disaster officer to exercise declared disaster powers to prevent or minimise any of the following—
(i) loss of human life;
(ii) illness or injury to humans;
(iii) property loss or damage;
(iv) damage to the environment.

The declaration must set out the area in which it is to apply and that is the ‘declared area’.

In an earlier post entitled SA increases criminal penalties for post -disaster looting (24 April 2012), I said:

The claim that ‘Experience has shown that the looting of properties in the affected areas is prevalent’ is very much contested. Looting post disaster has been exposed as one of the myths, rather than realities of disaster response (see for example Lee M. Miller, ‘Controlling disasters: recognising latent goals after Hurricane Katrina’ (2012) Vol 36 Issue 1 Disasters 122-139).

In the second reading speech the Hon I F Evans reported that looting occurs but cited no evidence to that effect and I’m not aware of reports of people being charged with looting. As Miller noted:

“Media images focused on examples of deviance, such as looting, and the capture and punishment of looters not only make for exciting coverage, but also reinforce the definition of looting as unacceptable and provide a warning that violators will be punished. The definition of looting was challenged and racialised when two photographs of people wading through chest-deep water received different captions despite seemingly identical behaviour. The White people had just ‘found’ food and the Black person had ‘looted’ (Kaufman, 2006). Regardless of actual events, the perception based on these images was that race was a factor in defining crime even under the most extreme conditions. These images appeared as troops had taken over New Orleans, Louisiana, presumably because the large minority population there warranted a dramatic presence of control agents.)”

The image of looting he argues was used to justify deploying US National Guardsmen to control the population rather than aid it and justified many actions to restrict the movement of affected people in order to retain social control.

When introducing this Bill, Mr Judge said “During the aftermath of the 2011 floods, over 30 people were charged under section 398, subsection 13 of the Criminal Code (‘stealing by looting’)”. I’ve not heard or read of the outcomes of any of those prosecutions.

As the quote from Miller suggests, what is looting to one person may be legitimate self help to another. Flooding, cyclones, earthquakes, tsunami and storm surge could leave communities isolated for some time and taking food or medicine from the shelves may be legitimate and necessary steps for survival. We’ll need to be careful how these actions are seen by both the media and law enforcers.

You can read Mr Judge’s speech to the parliament here;
and read the text of the bill, here.

Michael Eburn
21 April 2013