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In Houston, Authorities Are Toughening Penalties As Warning To Would-Be Looters

A police car patrols in downtown Houston on Wednesday following the first night of curfew after Harvey caused heavy flooding in the city.
Mark Ralston
AFP/Getty Images
A police car patrols in downtown Houston on Wednesday following the first night of curfew after Harvey caused heavy flooding in the city.

In flooded Houston, with scores of businesses closed and homes evacuated, authorities are sending a message to those thinking of looting or price gouging: Taking advantage of the situation won't be tolerated.

Police are beefing up security over reports of looting during and after Hurricane Harvey. That includes imposing a curfew and stiffening penalties for crimes committed in the stricken area.

"We're city that is about diversity and opportunity and all kinds of justice," Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo told reporters at a news conference Tuesday. "But we're not a city that's going to tolerate people victimizing people that are at the lowest point in their life."

Acevedo said additional police officers were heading into the Houston area and described the curfew as a "tool to assess the intentions of people that are out there."

Mayor Sylvester Turner stated that the midnight to 5 a.m. curfew is intended to prevent criminal activity. It "exempts flood relief volunteers, those seeking shelter, first responders, and those going to and from work."

It's not clear how many criminal incidents have occurred in areas hit by flooding, and the police chief declined to provide statistics. "I don't have the numbers. I can just tell you ... we're nipping it in the bud," Acevedo said.

Fourteen people accused of looting were arrested in the past 48 hours, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said in a statement released Tuesday. They will face "heftier penalties" if they are found to have broken the law in the disaster area. Burglarizing a home could mean life in prison.

"People displaced or harmed in this storm are not going to be easy prey," Ogg said. "Anyone who tries to take advantage of this storm to break into homes or businesses should know that they are going to feel the full weight of the law. ... Offenders will be processed around the clock without delay."

Texas law states that certain crimes bring harsher sentences "if they are committed in a county declared a disaster area by the governor," Ogg said. "Burglarizing a home would normally bring a penalty of two to 20 years in prison, but now brings five years to life."

Federal authorities are also warning about reports of people impersonating federal agents. Dressed as Homeland Security Investigations agents, they are "knocking on doors in the Houston area telling residents to evacuate — presumably so these imposters can rob the empty homes," according to a statement from the Department of Homeland Security.

Authorities stress that legitimate agents will wear badges and advise that "members of the public who receive such visitors should ask to see these properly labeled badges, and their credentials."

The Houston Chronicle reports that court records indicate that late Monday, police arrested a group of people allegedly breaking into a liquor store and another group in a "suspicious pickup truck" at a shopping center.

There have also been reports of price gouging. According to The Associated Press, the state's attorney general has received complaints of "loaves of bread offered for $15, fuel for $100 a gallon and hotels raising room rates."

At a news conference Wednesday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott emphasized that "price gouging is not only reprehensible, it's illegal."

He added: "Understand this: If you price gouge anybody, you could be subject to penalties of up to $25,000 per incident. If you're a business, you can be put out of business by the Texas attorney general if you dare try any price gouging."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.
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