We all know that there has been a property crime wave here in the Bay Area. Porch pirates are individuals who steal Amazon packages and other packages people have ordered online as they are delivered to our porches and the doorsteps of our apartment buildings. The property crime wave, which has been particularly extreme here in San Francisco and Oakland is not likely to subside anytime soon. It does not seem that the respective police forces have an effective plan to combat this property crime wave.
In the building where I reside, the porch pirates smashed through the glass door to get access to some of the packages that had accumulated in the lobby.
Some people have been very frustrated by the porch pirates and have resorted to vigilante Justice. We all have seen the YouTube videos where the homeowner places the glitter bomb and a camera inside of the package they leave on their porch. Later, much to the surprise of the porch pirate, it blows up in their face. There have also been YouTube videos of homeowners coming out with shotguns on their porch when someone is trying to steal their packages. In this blog, I will analyze the potential civil and criminal liability of anyone engaging in vigilante Justice against these porch pirates.
Obviously, the individuals who are the porch pirates who are engaging in theft are liable under the criminal statutes for theft. Under Penal Code 484 PC, California law defines the crime of petty theft as wrongfully taking or stealing someone else’s property when the value of the property is $950.00 or less. Petty theft is charged as a misdemeanor in California. The crime is punishable by imprisonment in county jail for up to six months, and/or a maximum fine of $1,000. If the value of the stolen goods exceeds $950.00, then the more serious crime of grand theft can be charged. The value of most of these packages being stolen is less than $950. Under California law, there is no crime specifically of “breaking and entering.” However, a person can be charged with burglary or trespass for unlawfully entering someone else’s home, commercial building, or property. Per Penal Code 459 PC (burglary), it is a crime for someone to enter a home or building with the intent to commit a felony or theft inside. Per Penal Code 602 PC (trespass), it is an offense for a person to go on someone else’s property without permission. The sentences for a burglary conviction can be either a misdemeanor or a felony. The crime is punishable by up to six years in state prison. Most trespass crimes are misdemeanors in California. The offense is punishable by up to six months in county jail.
In fiscal year 2019-2020 the San Francisco Police Department reported 48,118 total Reported Property Crimes. And in fiscal year 2018-2019 the SFPD reported 47,990 total Reported Property Crimes. But there are many more property crimes that go unreported. If you call 911 due to a package theft, the SFPD or the Oakland Police Department are unlikely to send an officer to respond.
The law has long frowned upon vigilante Justice. The law does not give you the right to use force against these porch pirates. If you gleefully placed a glitter bomb inside of a package and left it on your porch you will have created what in civil or torts is commonly referred to as an “attractive nuisance”. That is, you will place the attractive nuisance which is actually a trap for the porch pirate. If that individual should be injured by the trap you laid for them either by the glitter going in their eye or a fire occurring or something of that nature you could be civilly liable for an intentional tort. You could be liable for their pain and suffering, lost wages and medical bills.
The vigilante could also be criminally liable for battery. If the individual were seriously injured and had to go to the hospital it could be felony battery. California Penal Code 242 PC defines battery as any willful use of force or violence on another person. You may also face liability for assault, which is defined as an attempt to commit battery. (CPC 240). The defenses to Battery and Assault don’t apply here. You were not acting in self-defense or defense of another and you did act with intent and the other person did not consent to the battery.
Wow, this is pretty frustrating to hear. I could be liable for fighting back against a property crime wave where I can't even order some packages to my house. A more effective method dealing with these thefts is placing a video camera so you can record the individual stealing the package and give that video to the police.
If you live in an apartment building and someone buzzes your door to be let in, be sure to verify that this person is someone who's delivering a package for you or is there to see you or delivering a package for someone else in the building. The porch pirates go round buzzing every door in the building until someone lets them in and then they go in and steal all of the packages. I would also encourage you if you know a package has been delivered to go down to the lobby and get it immediately if you live in an apartment building.
In summary, your legal remedy if someone has stolen a package is to call the police. I know this isn't super effective. But at the same time, you could pressure policymakers to develop an effective strategy. Vigilante Justice is a bad idea and you could wind up being civilly or criminally liable if you do so.
I’m Jim Reilly, and this is legal advice you can rely on.