Updated July 2, 2020
California Penal Code 402 PC, subsection a, makes it a crime to sightsee at an emergency. This is defined as lingering at the scene of an emergency in such a way that hinders police and first responders from performing their functions.
402 PC states that “(a) Every person who goes to the scene of an emergency, or stops at the scene of an emergency, for the purpose of viewing the scene or the activities of police officers, firefighters, emergency medical, or other emergency personnel, or military personnel coping with the emergency in the course of their duties during the time it is necessary for emergency vehicles or those personnel to be at the scene of the emergency or to be moving to or from the scene of the emergency for the purpose of protecting lives or property, unless it is part of the duties of that person’s employment to view that scene or activities, and thereby impedes police officers, firefighters, emergency medical, or other emergency personnel or military personnel, in the performance of their duties in coping with the emergency, is guilty of a misdemeanor.”
Like Penal Code 409 PC failure to disperse and Penal Code 148(a)(1) PC resisting arrest, sightseeing at the scene of an emergency is usually charged against people who got on the wrong side of law enforcement or other official personnel at a tense time.
In practice, this means that people are often accused unfairly of this offense—including people who themselves were the victims of police misconduct.
The legal definition of sightseeing at an emergency
The legal definition of sightseeing at an emergency under PC 402 consists of the following “elements of the crime”:
- You went to or stopped at the scene of an emergency;
- You did so for the purpose of viewing the scene or the activities of police officers, firefighters, emergency medical, or other emergency personnel or military personnel coping with the emergency in the course of their duties;
- You did so during a time when it was necessary for emergency vehicles or those personnel to be at the scene of the emergency or moving to or from the scene of the emergency for purposes of protecting lives or property;
- You thereby impeded police officers, firefighters, emergency medical or other emergency or military personnel in the performance of their duties in coping with the emergency; AND
- Being present at the scene of the emergency was not part of the duties of your employment. 1 2
Below are several examples that illustrate what this legal definition means in practice—and who is and is not guilty of sightseeing at an emergency:
Example: Henry spots a bad car accident on the freeway. Curious, he pulls onto the shoulder, parks his car and gets out to go see what is going on.
Henry’s car is in the way of an ambulance that arrives shortly after. This prevents the paramedics from getting a stretcher to the wrecked cars quickly and safety.
Henry is guilty of sightseeing at an emergency.
Example: Michelle is a photographer for a tabloid newspaper. Her boss hears about police activity at the home of a well-known actor, and Michelle goes to check it out.
She finds an ambulance outside the actor’s mansion and hears from bystanders that the actor has overdosed on heroin.
Michelle runs onto the front porch of the mansion with her camera to see if she can get some pictures. When she does so, she bumps into an emergency medical technician (EMT) who is coming out of the house, causing him to drop and break a piece of medical equipment.
Michelle is at the scene of an emergency and impeded the EMT in performance of his duties. But because she is there as part of her job duties, she is probably NOT guilty of PC 402(a) sightseeing at the scene of an emergency (though she could possibly face charges for Penal Code 602 criminal trespass).
Example: Elvira is walking home from work one night and finds her street blocked off by police tape. It turns out that a drive-by shooting has taken place on her street. Police are still collecting evidence and ask that no one enter the area of the crime.
Elvira’s two teenage children are at home, and she is concerned that they may be traumatized from having witnessed the shooting. She ducks under the police tape and shoves past an officer who tries to stop her.
Elvira is probably NOT guilty of sightseeing at the scene of an emergency. Even though she impeded an officer in the performance of his duties at a crime scene, she entered the scene not to view the emergency but to make sure her kids were okay.
Also, she can probably argue that the police were not coping with an emergency when this occurred—the crime was over, and they were simply gathering evidence.
Note that you may face additional charges if you commit the crime of sightseeing at an emergency inside an area that law enforcement has closed because of a natural or man-made disaster. In that case, you could be charged under both Penal Code 402(a) PC AND Penal Code 409.5(c) PC, California’s law against unauthorized entry into a closed emergency area.
Penalties, punishment and sentencing for Penal Code 402(a) PC
Sightseeing at the site of an emergency is a misdemeanor in California law.3
The potential penalties are:
- Misdemeanor (summary) probation;
- Up to six (6) months in county jail; and/or
- A fine of up to one thousand dollars ($1,000).4
PC 402(a) legal defenses
According to Riverside criminal defense attorney Michael Scafiddi5:
“People are increasingly aware that police officers abuse their power all the time. And, though it is talked about less, so do firefighters and other first responders. Sightseeing at an emergency is one of those offenses that a law enforcement or other public safety officer can accuse someone of just because that person made their job harder or got on their nerves one day.”
But the fact is that there is a specific legal definition of sightseeing at an emergency, and only behavior that fits that definition makes you guilty of this offense.
One common legal defense to California Penal Code 402(a) charges is that you did not stop or stay at the scene of an emergency intentionally. If you wander onto the scene accidentally, and your goal was not to watch the emergency or the public officials’ response to it, you are not guilty of this offense.6
Also, you are not guilty of sightseeing at the scene of an emergency if you did not actually impede the activities of police, emergency medical personnel, firefighters, etc.7 Just being a “gawker” at the scene of an emergency is not against the law, as long as your presence doesn’t prevent these people from doing their jobs.
For additional help…
For questions about the crime of Penal Code 402(a) PC sightseeing at the scene of an emergency, or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our California criminal defense attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
We have local criminal law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.
1 Penal Code 402 PC – Interference with personnel at the scene of emergency; interference with a lifeguard.
4 Penal Code 19 PC – Punishment for misdemeanors. (“Except in cases where a different punishment is prescribed by any law of this state, every offense declared to be a misdemeanor [including sightseeing at a crime scene or accident] is punishable by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding six months, or by fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both.”)
5 Riverside criminal defense attorney Michael Scafiddi is a former Ontario police officer who now uses that inside knowledge to defend clients accused of a range of California misdemeanors and felonies. He has particular experience with crimes—like sightseeing at the scene of an emergency—where the case often hinges on the defendant’s word versus that of a cop. He practices criminal defense law primarily in San Bernardino and Riverside Counties.
6 Penal Code 402 PC – Interference with personnel at scene of emergency; interference with lifeguard, endnote 1 above.