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  • Writer's pictureLindsey B. Craft

Desperate for toilet paper? The crime isn't worth the time.

On March 13, 2020, Governor Abbott declared a state of disaster in Texas due to COVID-19 under Section 418.014 of the Texas Government Code. Shortly thereafter, President Trump declared a national emergency invoking powers under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (the “Stafford Act”) to allow substantially more federal aid to states and local governments.

The Stafford Act, signed into law on November 23, 1988, amended the Disaster Relief Act of 1974, PL 93-288. It contains the statutory authority for most Federal disaster response activities, particularly in regard to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”) and FEMA programs. Basically, the Stafford Act frees up billions of dollars of FEMA funds and authorizes FEMA to direct those funds toward the government’s response to natural disasters, or this case a pandemic like COVID-19, often referred to as just the coronavirus.

While use of the Stafford Act is actually quite common, it is rarely used for public health emergencies such as the coronavirus. And its invocation, along with the declaration of Governor Abbott, has significant consequences for any crime committed while the declaration of disaster and national emergency continue.

Under Texas Penal Code § 12.50, the punishment for certain criminal offenses are automatically approved to be raised to the next higher category of offense if it is shown during the trial on that offense that the offense was committed in an area that was, at the time the offense occurred, subject to a declaration by the President of the United States under the Stafford Act or by the Governor of Texas under Section 418.014 of the Texas Government Code. The actions statutorily subject to an increased degree of crime are offenses such as assault, arson, robbery, various types of burglary, criminal trespass, and theft.

What does this mean to you? Quite simply, that no matter how desperate you may feel during this pandemic, you need to stay calm and behave wisely or you may find yourself facing a higher category of charge for stealing (or fighting over) toilet paper. And that will follow you around a lot longer than this coronavirus.

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