Chesa Boudin is pursuing looting charges against Union Square theft suspects. It’s a legal gamble

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin’s decision last week to pursue felony looting charges for a recent wave of organized retail theft across the city is a legal gamble that may require his office to prove the crimes were the result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Looting — for which Boudin charged nine people who were arrested in connection with burglaries at the Louis Vuitton and other Union Square retailers, a cannabis dispensary and a Walgreens on Nov. 19 — is an offense under California law that encompasses grand theft, petty theft and burglary during a state of emergency or evacuation order resulting from a natural or man-made disaster, such as an earthquake, fire, flood or riot.

California has been under a state of emergency for the pandemic since March 2020, and Gov. Gavin Newsom recently extended the order through the end of next March. During that time, district attorneys across the state, from Stanislaus to Mendocino counties, used the looting statute in at least a handful of cases during the early days of the stay-at-home order last year, and again months later amid the civil unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd.

But as the COVID-19 emergency, which Boudin cited as the basis for the recent charges, stretches toward two years, his filing strategy is entering uncharted territory where it is likely to encounter a legal dispute over the very definition of looting.