The Norman Transcript

April 15, 2014

Storm scavengers now could face felony charges

By Janelle Stecklein
The Norman Transcript

OKLAHOMA CITY — It wasn’t long after a devastating tornado hit Moore last year that scavengers were circling the wreckage. Already reeling, Moore residents had a new concern — fending off looters.

“(It’s) pretty low to have your belongings stolen,” said Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore, who said he was upset when he heard about opportunists who followed the tornado last May, as well as one that hit El Reno less than two weeks later.

The storms killed dozens, injured hundreds and left a trail of destruction. McBride has filed legislation, Senate Bill 2071, making it a felony to steal from areas hit hard by such storms.

Moore police Sgt. Jeremy Lewis said looting and scavenging wasn’t “super widespread” after the tornado, but police made some arrests, and some property owners returned to find people stealing their belongings. Scavengers even came from out of state, he said.

District Attorney District 21 Greg Mashburn said his office filed 10 to 15 cases involving looting from the disaster area.

The hardest part in prosecuting those cases, Mashburn said, was determining in the tornado’s disarray just whose belongings the looters had taken.

Oklahoma law requires that stolen property be matched to a victim. That wasn’t possible, so Mashburn said suspects in his cases were charged with misdemeanors, regardless of the amount taken.

The proposed law “will be a good prosecution tool” because it will remove the burden of matching stolen items to victims, he said, and allow prosecutors to press felony charges when they deem it appropriate.

Lewis said he foresees one potential issue: Police arrested people last year who “didn’t mean to loot.” They were found rooting through items piled on the curb, which they believed to be discards.

Trash piles are also off limits in disaster areas, he said.

“They considered it trash, and we didn’t,” said Lewis, noting that scavengers who were arrested had been warned to stay away.

A new law, he said, would “deter the people with the intent to steal stuff.”

But others have raised questions, as well. McBride’s bill, which easily cleared the Senate, barely escaped a House committee last week as his colleagues queried whether the state needs another felony; what besides a tornado classifies as a disaster; and at what point is something considered a disaster area.

Trent Baggett, assistant executive coordinator at the Oklahoma District Attorneys Council, said the bill will likely be used mostly to protect tornado victims.

“Trying to stop people that are carrying away belongings in a disaster area, that would be a good thing,” he said.

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