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California Penal Code Section 402(a) PC: Sightseeing at the Scene of an Emergency

March 21, 2024

California Penal Code Section 402(a) PC: Sightseeing at the Scene of an Emergency

We’ve all been there – driving down the highway when you see flashing lights up ahead. There’s been an accident or some other emergency, and traffic slows down as people crane their necks to get a look at what’s going on. While it may be human nature to feel curious about an emergency happening nearby, in California it’s actually illegal under California Penal Code Section 402(a) PC to stop or slow down just to gawk. This crime is known as “sightseeing at the scene of an emergency,” and it can carry some pretty harsh penalties if you’re convicted.

In this article, we’ll break down exactly what constitutes sightseeing at the scene of an emergency in California. We’ll look at what the law says, what kind of behavior can get you in trouble, and what defenses you might have if you’re accused of violating PC 402(a). We’ll also discuss the punishments and fines you could face if convicted. Let’s get started!

What is California Penal Code Section 402(a)?

California Penal Code Section 402(a) PC states that “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 being handled or for the purpose of viewing the body or body parts of a deceased person before or after removal is guilty of the crime of sightseeing at the scene of an emergency.”

In plain English, this means it’s illegal to go to or stop at the site of an emergency just to gawk at what’s going on. An “emergency” in this context means any sort of incident that emergency personnel have responded to, like:

  • A traffic accident
  • A fire
  • A crime scene
  • A natural disaster
  • A medical emergency

If you go to or stop at one of these scenes merely to satisfy your curiosity or see what’s happening, you could be charged with sightseeing at the scene of an emergency under PC 402(a).

What Does “Sightseeing” Mean?

When it comes to sightseeing at an emergency scene, the key factor is your purpose for being there. If your goal is to view the activities of emergency responders or gawk at an accident, injury, or death – that’s sightseeing. On the other hand, if you have a legitimate reason for being present at an emergency, that is not considered sightseeing under the law.

For example, say you’re driving to work and come upon a bad car accident where firefighters are working to extract someone from a crushed vehicle. If you slow down or stop merely to watch the action, you could be charged with sightseeing at the scene of an emergency. However, if you slow down because traffic is backed up due to the accident, or to proceed cautiously through the area, that would not be considered sightseeing.

What Kind of Behavior Violates PC 402(a)?

There are a few common behaviors that could get you charged with sightseeing at an emergency scene under California law:

  • Slowing down or stopping your vehicle near an emergency solely to gawk, take photos/video, or view injured/deceased victims
  • Parking near an emergency scene and walking closer to view activities
  • Intentionally traveling to the site of an emergency just to see what’s happening
  • Flying a drone over an emergency to record events or take photos

Merely driving by an emergency or slowing down safely due to traffic conditions would not be enough to constitute sightseeing. The key factor is that your intent or purpose must be to view the scene or victims.

What are the Punishments for Sightseeing at an Emergency?

If you’re convicted of violating California Penal Code 402(a), sightseeing at the scene of an emergency can be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony offense, depending on the circumstances. Potential penalties include:

  • Up to 1 year in county jail (misdemeanor)
  • 16 months, 2 years or 3 years in state prison (felony)
  • Up to $1,000 in fines (misdemeanor) or $10,000 (felony)

Factors that can increase the charges to a felony include if emergency responders are injured as a result of your actions, or if you use a drone to sightsee at an emergency scene. Having a prior conviction under PC 402 can also mean harsher punishment.

Legal Defenses Against Sightseeing Charges

If you’ve been accused of sightseeing at an emergency scene under PC 402(a), don’t panic. There are several legal defenses that a criminal defense attorney may use to fight the charges against you, such as:

  • You didn’t have the required intent – As mentioned, the key element is that your purpose was to view the scene or victims. If this intent can’t be proven, the charges should be dismissed.
  • You had a valid reason for being there – Such as you live nearby or were driving to work. Your purpose has to be to sightsee.
  • No emergency personnel were present – PC 402(a) requires active emergency responders on scene. If they weren’t there yet, you may not have been sightseeing.
  • Unlawful arrest – If police didn’t have probable cause to believe you were sightseeing, any evidence obtained may be inadmissible.

A skilled criminal defense lawyer can evaluate the details of your case and build the strongest defense to have your sightseeing charges reduced or dismissed. Don’t hesitate to consult an attorney if you are facing allegations of violating PC 402(a).

Avoiding Trouble Under California’s Sightseeing Law

The best way to avoid finding yourself in legal jeopardy under Penal Code 402(a) is simple – don’t stop or go to an emergency scene just to gawk. We all feel curious when we encounter an accident or crime scene, but satisfy that curiosity by moving along safely. Don’t impede emergency responders by stopping or turning around. If you do find yourself at an emergency, keep your eyes on the road and move along promptly.

Remember, sightseeing at an emergency is not only illegal – it’s dangerous and can hinder police, firefighters and paramedics from doing their vital jobs. Don’t become another distraction at an already chaotic scene. Drive safely and keep your eyes on the road.

If you or a loved one have been accused of sightseeing at an emergency scene in California, don’t take it lightly. Speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney right away to protect your rights. A skilled lawyer can often get charges reduced or dismissed entirely. Don’t let one moment of curiosity ruin your whole future.

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