It's not uncommon for mandatory evacuations to be called during wildfire season in California.
Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday declared an emergency as the Detwiler Fire continues to threaten communities on the outskirts of Yosemite National Park. Evacuation orders are in effect for the city of Mariposa and other areas affected by the fire.
While many people choose to evacuate to safety during an emergency, others do not. This was the case during Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. Unfortunately, making the choice to sit out a mandatory evacuation could result in tragic consequences. In California, choosing to ignore a mandatory evacuation also comes with potential legal repercussions.
Who orders mandatory evacuations?
The state government has the complete authority to declare an emergency, bolstering the state's resources to respond, according to the California Emergency Services Act. The governor has the right to make orders and regulations to protect life and property, and also has a right to exercise all police power in the state.
Additionally, the law states a local emergency can also be proclaimed by a city or county, or by a designated local official (Gov. Code 8630). The county sheriffs normally lead local evacuations while the California Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) support and assist the local authorities based on their own emergency plans.
What are the legal consequences for ignoring a mandatory evacuation in California?
Mandatory evacuations are forced, or directed evacuations. While it's up to the government to decide whether or not to use resources to enforce mandatory evacuations during an emergency, there is still a California law which finds ignoring a mandatory evacuation a criminal offense.
Anyone who violates any orders or regulations stated in the Emergency Services Act can be found "guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction thereof, shall be punishable by a fine of not to exceed one thousand dollars ($1,000) or by imprisonment for not to exceed six months or by both such fine and imprisonment." (Gov. Code 8665).
There are also laws giving federal, state and local authorities the right to close out designated areas during a natural disaster to keep people out. Any person who enters a closed off area or remains in an area after being ordered to evacuate can be found guilty of a misdemeanor (Penal Code 409.5).
Additionally, Penal Code 148(a) states, any person who willfully resists, delays, or obstructs any public officer, peace officer, firefighter or an emergency medical technician while they're trying to do their job, can be punished by a fine of $1,000 or by imprisonment in a county jail for up to a year.
How often are these laws enforced?
There are laws in place during mandatory evacuations but according Cal OES, they are rarely used.
According to Law Practice Today, a publication from the American Bar Association (ABA), there have been issues with authorities who have enforced the law in the past. After Hurricane Katrina, several authorities were sued for false arrest, wrongful imprisonment and civil rights violations in the course of enforcing mandatory evacuation orders.
There are have also been allegations of excessive use of force during mandatory evacuations, according to the ABA.
There will always be people who choose not to evacuate during an emergency situation. It's up to the local agencies to decide how to handle these cases.