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Bill enhancing punishment for crimes committed during states of emergency taking effect this week

Damage to homes in Mayfield after the December 2021 tornado outbreak.
Derek Operle
Damage to homes in Mayfield after the December 2021 tornado outbreak.

A bill creating enhanced penalties for crimes committed during declared states of emergency is among the more than 200 laws taking effect this week.

Senate Bill 179 enhances the penalty for certain offenses – mostly relating to theft – committed during a declared emergency. This means that, for example, burglary in the first degree, typically a Class B felony, would be elevated to a Class A felony if it occurred during a declared emergency in a disaster area.

In the days after the December tornado outbreak, some impacted communities experienced looting of homes and businesses destroyed by the storms. Gov. Andy Beshear commented on it in the early aftermath.

“Sadly there does appear to be looting and we cannot let it happen,” Beshear said on Dec. 17, 2021. “To take advantage of somebody who has lost everything is beyond despicable and if we catch you we will prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law. Be a decent human being.”

This bill furthers that extent..

City of Mayfield Chief of Police Nathan Kent said there were people coming in from out of state to loot the storm damage. Local law enforcement implemented a curfew to make patrols easier, but still saw multiple arrests in the days after the storm.

“We made several arrests in the days after the storm, again with most of them seem to be people that were from out of the region and even out of the state that had come here purposely for that,” he said.

Kent thinks the legislation is a good idea.

“When a natural or man-made disaster happens, the citizens that are affected are already victimized, and then for someone, a bad actor, to try to take advantage of that situation and re-victimize our victims, I would support an enhanced penalty for that type of criminal behavior,” the Mayfield police chief said.

He thinks there’s a chance that over time, this law might be a deterrent for those bad actors but the public at large may not really get what this bill does.

Warren County Sheriff Brett Hightower also hopes the enhanced charges in the bill will be a deterrent in the future. His office helped respond to the damage the tornadoes left behind in Bowling Green and Warren County along with looting in the city.

Hightower said law enforcement officers get so busy trying to answer cries for help and responding to 911 dispatches for injury assistance that the focus of their work isn’t on people’s property but instead on people’s lives. The National Guard came to Bowling Green to assist with disaster response efforts there and Hightower said his office was able to have them cordon off areas and set up checkpoints.

“There were people that took advantage of the devastation and that had attempted or did go into places of business, into people's residences and they took other people's belongings, just because the tornado had caused this destruction,” he said. “Very unfortunate that people would do that and that is a crime in [and] of itself.”

Lily Burris is a tornado recovery reporter for WKMS, Murray State's NPR Station. Her nine month reporting project is supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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