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 it hinders police and first responders from performing their functions. A violation of this law is a misdemeanor offense punishable by up to six months in county jail.
The language of the statute reads that:
402. (a) (1) 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 those 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.
- stopping a car near a traffic collision and the car blocks an ambulance arriving at the accident scene.
- lingering at a building that is on fire and interfering with firefighters while they work.
- taking a video of police trying to apprehend a suspect of shoplifting and yelling that the person is innocent.
Criminal defense lawyers draw upon several legal strategies to help clients contest charges under this statute. A few common ones include showing that defendants:
- did not impede or obstruct emergency personnel,
- were performing the duties of their employment, and/or
- acted out of necessity.
A violation of California Penal Code Section 402a is a misdemeanor (as opposed to an infraction or a felony).
The crime is punishable by:
- custody in county jail for up to six months, and/or
- a maximum fine of $1,000.
Our California criminal defense attorneys will explain the following in this article:
- 1. How does California law define “sightseeing at the scene of an emergency”?
- 2. Are there legal defenses to PC 402a charges?
- 3. What are the penalties?
- 4. Are there related offenses?
1. How does California law define “sightseeing at the scene of an emergency”?
A prosecutor must prove the following elements of the crime to successfully convict a person under this statute:
- the defendant went to or stopped at the scene of an emergency,
- the accused did so for the purpose of viewing the scene or the activities of peace officers, law enforcement, firefighters, emergency medical, or other emergency personnel or military personnel coping with the emergency in the course of their duties,
- the accused did so during a time when it was necessary for emergency vehicles or those personnel to be at the scene of the emergency,
- the defendant thereby impeded police officers, firefighters, emergency medical or other emergency or military personnel in the performance of their duties, and
- being present at the scene of the emergency was not part of the defendant’s work duties.1
For purposes of this section, a judge will determine if there was an “emergency scene” by considering all of the facts of the case.
2. Are there legal defenses to PC 402a charges?
People accused of a crime under this California law can challenge the accusation with a legal defense/disclaimer. Three common defenses include accused people showing that they:
- did not interfere with or impede emergency personnel.
- were performing their job.
- acted out of necessity.
2.1. No interference
People are only guilty under this law if they actually interfered with or obstructed emergency personnel while they were performing their duties. It is not a crime, for example, if someone was simply lingering near an accident scene. Therefore, a defendant can always raise the defense that he/she did not impede emergency workers in any way.
2.2. Performing duties of employment
Recall that people are not guilty of this offense if they obstructed first responders while performing their own work duties. For example, a news reporter would not be breaking the law if he/she bumped into a police officer while trying to report on an emergency. This means that an accused can defend against a charge by showing that he/she was at an accident scene while performing his/her work duties.
Under a necessity defense, defendants try to avoid guilt by showing that they had a sufficiently good reason to commit the crime. In the context of sightseeing at the scene of an emergency, defendants could attempt to show that they committed the crime because they had no other choice. Perhaps, for example, they interfered with first responders because they had no room to get out of the way.
3. What are the penalties?
Criminal offenses under this statute are misdemeanor crimes.
The crimes are punishable by:
- custody in county jail (as opposed to state prison) for up to six months, and/or
- a maximum fine of $1,000.2
Note that a judge can award a defendant with misdemeanor (or summary) probation in lieu of jail time. If so, the performance of community service is often a common probation condition.
4. Are there related offenses?
There are three crimes related to sightseeing at the scene of an emergency. These are:
- trespassing – PC 602,
- unauthorized entry to an emergency area – PC 409.5, and
- resisting arrest – PC 148.
4.1. Trespassing – PC 602
Per Penal Code 602, trespassing is the crime where people enter or remain on someone else’s property without permission or a right to do so.
If an emergency scene was at someone’s home, and a person was sightseeing while on that property, then a prosecutor might be able to charge the party with both:
- sightseeing at the scene of an emergency, and
4.2. Unauthorized entry to an emergency area – PC 409.5
Per Penal Code 409.5, the unauthorized entry to an emergency area is the crime where people:
- enter an area that law enforcement has closed off because of a natural or man-made disaster, and
- do so without proper authority.
As with Penal Code 402a, this law exists to help ensure that emergency personnel can do their jobs without interference.
4.3. Resisting arrest – PC 148
Under Penal Code 148, resisting arrest is the crime where people willfully resist, delay, or obstruct law enforcement officers or emergency medical technicians in the performance of their official duties.
While PC 402a applies to people obstructing law enforcement at emergency scenes, this law applies to obstructing law enforcement while they are responding to both emergencies and non-emergencies alike.
For additional help…
For additional guidance or to discuss your case with a criminal defense lawyer, we invite you to contact our law firm at the Shouse Law Group. Our attorneys provide both free consultations and legal advice you can trust.
They also represent clients all across California, including those in Los Angeles and Orange County.
- California Penal Code 402 PC – Interference with personnel at the scene of emergency; interference with a lifeguard.
- California Penal Code 19 PC.