In the wake of a natural disaster, or large protest or assembly gone wrong, looters and other opportunistic thieves can make matters much worse. Looting is stealing, which is never legal (though in matters of life or death, it might be excusable).
Generally, the penalties for looting in any given state will be the same or similar to the penalties for stealing. The various details of how the theft or looting occurs will matter. For instance, if a looter must break a window or door, they may also be facing charges for breaking and entering in addition to theft. However, if the door was open, or window already broken, the charges may simply be theft charges, but those too can vary based on what is taken.
Looting During a Crisis
Some states, including Texas, have laws making the penalties much harsher for looting during a crisis such as a natural disaster. For instance, in Texas, the maximum penalty for burglary may only be 15 years, but if it occurred during an official state of emergency, the maximum sentence is life in prison. Also, if you're caught looting by police in Texas, consider yourself lucky, as residents there appear to be ready to shoot those who loot.
Other states, such as California or Louisiana may not add on additional years for looting during a crisis, but rather raise the minimum penalty to ensure that looters are guaranteed time behind bars. In California, a looter is looking at a minimum of 6 months, while in Louisiana (likely thanks to the aftermath of Katrina) the minimum penalty for looting during an emergency is three years.
Beware of Looters Posing as Authorities
One of the more shocking phenomena involves looters impersonating local, state, or federal officials during emergencies in order to loot. The common disaster looting scam works like this:
Unfortunately, this scam is very difficult to detect during an emergency, however, be logical. Demand to see badges and official documentation. Try calling the department that the alleged agents are from.