Lawmakers seek harsher penalties for looters

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - A new bill could lead to harsher penalties for people who steal during declared states of emergency.

The proposed bill would allow law enforcement to charge looters with first-degree burglary.

Residents in Polo Farms said they’re on board for this bill because many who live there said they experienced looting first-hand during Hurricane Florence.

“We had started to clear the houses out pulled everything out and salvaged what we could in the houses,” explained Timothy Westover, who is a victim of looting.

After the water subsided, Westover stacked couches, TVs, and kids toys out on his front porch to dry out.

“We really didn’t have anywhere else to put it at the time,” he said. “I came back the next day and everything was gone. They took my kids bikes, lawnmowers, TVs, anything they could get some money for.”

Westover said security cameras caught the looters filling up a trailer with items.

“Getting hit by the storm and the house getting flooded and then people taking everything you have left is just pretty tough," he said. "It was a breaking point after that.”

Representative Russell Fry said victims like Westover are the reason he’s proposing this looting bill.

He explained the bill seeks to protect those who are vulnerable after natural disasters. If passed, the law would increase the looting penalty during declared states of emergency to burglary in the first degree.

“The minimum sentencing for that charge is 15 years. They could spend some pretty hefty time behind bars if they do these acts,” said Fry.

Westover said he thinks harsher penalties are needed because in the last storm, looters were not scared of consequences.

“Especially as brazen as these people did do it. They came in here with a truck and trailer just taking their time. It wasn’t a run up and dash,” said Westover.

There are those who are pro-looting because they said sometimes during storms people can be desperate and need to do what they can to survive. In response, Fry said breaking the law is never acceptable.

“I think the government is doing well, stores are doing well. I don’t think a scenario exists where you need to take it on yourself and break the law,” he said.

This bill now sits in the House Judiciary Committee.

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