Is it Ever Legal to Loot?

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By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on August 15, 2011 1:10 PM

With London plagued by riots and widespread looting, it might be a good time to discuss whether, in the United States, there are any situations during which it would be legal to loot.

There is, and it's called necessity.

But just like arguing self-defense or defense of others in a murder case, a looter can only claim necessity when acting for a higher good.

There is never a wholesale right to loot.

Looting, by definition, is theft. And while most looting stories detail the taking of luxury items like televisions and iPhones, this is not always the case.

Those are the situations in which it may be legal to loot on the grounds of necessity.

Under the law of necessity, a person may take another's property in order to protect himself and others from death or serious bodily harm.

What does this mean?

A person can take only that which is needed to survive, such as a reasonable supply of food, water, medication, clothing, gasoline, shelter, etc.

And generally speaking, that person must not have created the situation to begin with, but instead must be the victim of a natural disaster, like an earthquake or hurricane.

Even though a looter in this situation may not be held criminally liable, there may still be some civil liability for the items taken.

In a civil lawsuit for damages, the law generally recognizes the defense of public necessity, or causing damage to (or taking) another person's property for the greater community good.

However, many states don't recognize the defense of private necessity--harming another's property for your own good.

So even if it is legal to loot, to do so may not always be free.

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