Unauthorized Entry into Closed Emergency Area

Entering an emergency area without lawful permission is a crime that is sometimes overlooked, depending on the circumstances. However, it is not surprising that law enforcement chooses when they will strictly enforce it, and when they will let it slide. That said, any area that is considered too dangerous for public access should always be avoided for safety reasons.

An emergency area that is closed-off is usually done so first responders and public servants are not obstructed from doing their duty. Preventing access or placing yourself or others in a dangerous environment is why unauthorized entry into a closed emergency area is a crime.

To gain a deeper understanding of what it means to unlawfully enter a closed area, we must first analyze how California defines it.

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Definition of unauthorized entry into a closed area

California outlines what it means to enter a closed emergency area without authorization under Penal Code 409.5. The statute details these specific criteria:

  • Public health or safety is at risk due to a disastrous event such as;

    • A natural disaster like flooding, earthquakes, mudslides, hurricanes, or fires.

    • Or due to accidents, explosions, or similar events.

  • Public officials closed off the area using tape, markers, rope, or by posting guards.

    • Those considered public officials include emergency personnel, such as first responders, police officers, Highway Patrol officers, or firefighters.

  • You knowingly and purposely entered the areas that public officials had closed off, AND

    • Knowingly means you were aware that the area was closed off from public access due to an emergency, health, or safety hazard.

    • Purposely means you acted deliberately to gain access.

  • You willfully chose to remain in the area after public officials told you to disperse or leave.

    • In this situation, willfully means you intended to stay where you were while simultaneously ignoring the posted signs or guards asking you to leave.

Despite how you chose to act, you can still be guilty of this crime even if you had no intention of breaking any laws or causing anyone else harm. PC 409.5 and similar laws were created not to catch criminals per se, but to prevent the general public from being harmed while allowing emergency personnel accessibility to do their duty.

Commonly Associated Offense

Law enforcement and first responders need access to any given situation that requires their assistance. If they cannot gain entry or are held-up and interrupted in their duties, it could have devastating consequences.

California Penal Code 402(a) - Sightseeing at an Emergency;

This statute is similar to PC 409.5, unauthorized entry to a closed emergency area. However, PC 402(a) specifically focuses on these details:

  • You hovered around the scene of an emergency, AND

  • Your presence at the emergency site was somehow hindering,

    • Police officers, first responders, emergency personnel, or similar public officials.

Both statutes, PC 402(a), sightseeing at an emergency, and PC 409.5 are strictly enforced when you provoke or force members of law enforcements’ hands. Gaining their attention by making yourself a nuisance, somehow impeding their duties, or simply getting in the way during a tense situation are some of the reasons why law enforcement would charge you with PC 409.5, unauthorized entry into a closed emergency area.

Closely Related Offenses

The following statutes are similar offenses that can sometimes be charged in addition to unauthorized entry into a closed emergency area. There are certain offenses that members of law enforcement have used on such a rampant basis that it calls into question whether those situations were examples of abuse of power.

Penal Code 602.8 - Trespassing as an infraction;

If you willfully entered another person’s land without their permission and the land had been fenced-in, roped-off, or had signs posted forbidding trespassers you could be charged with this infraction.

Penal Code 602 - Trespassing;

This crime is committed when you enter or remain on another person’s property without their express permission or the lawful right to do so.

Penal Code 409 - Failure to disperse;

You can be charged with this crime if you refuse to leave an unlawful assembly, riot, or similar gathering after being told by law enforcement to disperse.

Penal Code 407 & 408 - Unlawful assembly;

This law prohibits two or more people who assemble together in order to do something illegal or do something lawful, but they do so in an overly boisterous, tumultuous, or violent manner.

Penal Code 148(a)(1) - Resisting arrest;

This crime is committed when you willfully resist or obstruct a police officer or EMT (emergency medical technician) from performing their duties.

What The Prosecution Must Do

The prosecution must prove the defendant committed all the facts of the crime before gaining a conviction for PC 409.5, unauthorized entry to a closed emergency area. These factors are known as the elements of the crime which are:

  • An emergency situation caused a health and safety issue for the public.

    • Such events include hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, explosions, accidents, sink-holes, bridge or building structural collapse, or other disasters that cause hazardous conditions.

  • Public officials had closed off the hazardous area to the public by using:

    • Ropes, tape, markers, cones, or by posting guards.

    • Public servants and emergency personnel include EMTs (emergency medical technicians), other first responders, members of law enforcement, or California Highway Patrol.

    • A closed-off area would also include law enforcement command posts, which were set up in response to handling the emergency.

      • A command center set up specifically to deal with an emergency event does not have to be located close or near the actual hazardous site.

  • You knowingly and purposely entered a closed emergency area without lawful authorization, AND

  • You willfully maintained your presence after you were told to leave the area.

The prosecution will pursue charges regardless of whether you intended to break the law or cause harm to anyone. This argument would be considered irrelevant as the only facts that need to be proven are the four elements above.

Remember, knowingly and willfully entering a closed area does not mean you knew you were committing a crime. It just means you knew the area was closed off due to a public safety hazard or emergency.

Who Can Face Charges

Let’s take a look at the following examples that illustrate who can face charges for unauthorized entry to a closed emergency area, PC 409.5.

Example 1:

Deejay and his neighbors were ordered to evacuate their neighborhood due to wildfires blazing in their area. He did not want to leave his home until emergency personnel showed up to help all residents evacuate. He waited until they had moved on to the next street before turning around and heading back to his home. He felt the firefighters would stop the spreading flames before they reached his street.

His home was in a zone that would eventually be consumed by the fire and he was told to leave by emergency workers. Although there was no roped-off area and emergency personnel were not yet posted on the street, Deejay willingly and knowingly chose to sneak back into the neighborhood. He would be guilty of entering an unauthorized emergency area under PC 409.5.

Example 2:

A mudslide caused closures on Raul’s delivery route. Emergency workers were slowly clearing away debris and had created a driveable path for emergency vehicles. The area was closed off, with markers and signs in place to prevent drivers from taking that street. Annoyed that he would have to take a longer route which would prolong his shift, he decided to drive the path emergency personnel had cleared. As he was slowly driving through, working crews yelled for him to leave. He just continued his route.

Raul willingly and knowingly entered a closed emergency area without authorization and he could be charged with PC 409.5.

Example 3:

A major storm wreaked havoc on the neighborhood playground. Large branches and trees had been blown down, creating hazardous conditions. Caution tape and keep out signs were put up around the park to prevent the general public from entering while clean-up crews worked to clear out the debris. Rick and Zane wanted to take video and pictures for their Instragam. They ducked under the tape and went into the park. One of the emergency workers asked them to leave, stating signs were posted to keep out. They ignored the warnings and continued taking pictures for their social media posts.

Rick and Zane knowingly and willingly entered the area without authorization, completely disregarding the obvious signs to stay out. They were told to leave but ignored that as well. They could both face a PC 409.5 offense. They did not hinder the public servants from doing their jobs, nor did they harm anyone by entering. These factors, however, are not necessary when it comes to being charged.

Example 4:

Two lanes were closed down on the I-5 due to a major accident involving several vehicles and semi-trucks. Tony was curious about the accident and pulled into one of the closed-off lanes to have a closer look. Markers and emergency vehicles were stationed around the area, so he parked behind an ambulance and got out of his car. He walked by several emergency personnel before anyone noticed him. They asked if he was authorized to be there and when he replied he was just curious, they ordered him to leave. He ignored them and lingered, trying to peek at the people in the ambulances.

Tony knew there was an accident and it was closed-off, but he willingly drove in and ignored verbal orders to leave. He is guilty of unauthorized entry into a closed emergency area, PC 409.5. He would also be guilty of PC 402(a), for sightseeing at an emergency. Not only did he hover around the scene, but he also parked his vehicle directly behind an ambulance. This would be a prime example of causing a hindrance for first responders at the scene of an accident.

The Legal Defense

Unfortunately, there are instances where PC 409.5 and PC 402(a) get used for the wrong reasons. Innocent people end up being charged simply because they found themselves at an intense scene, where tensions are high for everyone present.

To be guilty of unauthorized entry to a closed area, all the elements of the crime must be present. A skilled criminal defense lawyer will be able to recognize these factors and know how they apply to your case. The following are just some of the common legal defenses used to fight charges for PC 409.5.

Did you act knowingly and willfully?

Getting convicted of unauthorized entry to a closed emergency area means you had to have acted knowingly and willfully. If you had no idea that the area was closed off to the public and you entered it, you would not be guilty of PC 409.5.

Example:

Maggie is a diabetic and felt her blood sugar was getting too low. She took a break from work and decided to walk to the nearest am/pm. She began feeling confused, anxious, and weak. Recognizing that she needed to eat something to balance her glucose levels she walked right passed law enforcement at the am/pm. She did not realize the area was roped off due to a car crash. The car slammed into a power line, causing it to fall and the car to explode. All she could think about was getting something to eat before she passed out. She did not hear the officers talking to her, nor did she pay any attention to the car consumed in flames, the flashing emergency lights, and emergency personnel in the area. She was having heart palpitations and was lightheaded, which only made her anxiety turn to panic.

The am/pm was closed off from the public and law enforcement did ask Maggie to leave. However, she was unable to communicate with anyone, nor did she understand what was going on around her due to her medical condition. Maggie did not knowingly or willfully commit a PC 409.5 offense because she was not fully mindful of the scene as she was completely preoccupied with a hypoglycemic attack.

Were you told to leave?

Even if you willingly and knowingly entered an unauthorized area, if no one told you to leave you would not be guilty of PC 409.5. One of the factors required to be charged is that a public official, such as a police officer asks that you leave the scene.

Example:

An earthquake causes major structural damage to a dam, placing hundreds of thousands of residents downstream in danger. The residents were ordered to evacuate in case the dam broke. Jesse was coming back from vacation and knew all about the area being closed to the public. He waited until his neighborhood was empty of residents and emergency personnel before going home. He parked his car in the garage and stayed indoors so he wouldn’t get caught. Several days passed without incident nor anyone telling him to leave.

Although Jesse knew there was danger and willfully entered the area without authorization, no one told him to leave. If no public official, law enforcement, or emergency personnel told Jesse to leave, his case would not meet all the criteria necessary to get a conviction. He would not be guilty of unauthorized entry to a closed emergency area, PC 409.5

Was the arresting officer simply annoyed with you?

Annoying a public official is not a crime. Police officers have been known to abuse their power and charge innocent people with PC 409.5 or PC 402(a) offenses. Getting on public officials’ nerves does not qualify as a crime and you should not be punished for it.

Example:

Maria worked for a news agency as a photographer and was told to take photos of a trolley accident. Several of the trolley cars had crashed due to a semi-truck trying to cross the tracks at the wrong time. The area was not roped off yet, so Maria got close and began taking pictures. A police officer yelled at her to back away. She complied with his orders and moved farther back before continuing to take photographs. Not satisfied with her distance, he yelled at her again. She pulled out her press pass and asked what an agreeable distance would be. This time he simply detained her and charged her with PC 409.5, unauthorized entry to a closed area and PC 402(a), sightseeing at an emergency.

Maria, however, would not be guilty of either charge. Not only was there no signage or cones to block the area off, but she had also complied with the police officer’s order to “back away.” He did not tell her to leave. Furthermore, she was a member of the press and was not trying to hinder any of the first responders, law enforcement, or firefighters that were present. The offenses were dropped as none of the details of her case fit the elements of either crime.

Penalties for PC 409.5 and PC 402(a)

If convicted of either unauthorized entry to a closed emergency area or sightseeing at an emergency, you face a:

Misdemeanor;

Summary (informal) probation,

A potential six months in county jail, and/or

As much as one thousand dollars in fines.

Enhanced Penalties

Being charged with both offenses will mean the punishments are stacked. The penalties will be served consecutively which can lead to a longer probationary period along with increased fines and jail time.

Penalties for Closely Related Offenses

Penal Code 602.8 - Trespassing as an infraction;

Infraction;

The first offense is seventy-five dollar fine,

The second offense is a two-hundred-fifty dollar fine, and

The third offense will result in a misdemeanor.

Penal Code 602 - Trespassing;

Misdemeanor;

Informal (misdemeanor) probation,

A possible six-month county jail sentence, and/or

As much as one thousand dollars in fines.

Penal Code 409 - Failure to disperse;

Misdemeanor;

Summary (informal) probation,

As long as six months in county jail, and/or

Fines as high as one thousand dollars.

Penal Code 407 & 408 - Unlawful assembly;

Misdemeanor;

The maximum sentence is six months in county jail.

Penal Code 148(a)(1) - Resisting arrest;

Misdemeanor;

Informal (misdemeanor) probation,

A potential one-year county jail sentence, and/or

Fines of up to one thousand dollars.

We Can Help

Are you located in San Diego, Orange County, or Los Angeles and need expert legal advice? If you or someone you love is facing a PC 409.5 offense or any of the related offenses, contact the Law Offices of Anna R. Yum. As an award-winning defense lawyer, Attorney Yum understands how life-changing a criminal record can be. Take control of the situation by getting the legal help you need.

To schedule your free, no-obligation consultation give us a call at 619-233-4433. You can also reach out to us via our online contact form.

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