Getting in Trouble with 911

Is it illegal to call 911 for a non-emergency?

SWAT
SWATting is a form of inappropriate 911 that could easily get someone killed. Vesna Andjic / Getty Images

Question

Is it illegal to call 911 for a non-emergency?

A man in Texas called 911 several times to make a date with the 911 operator. A guy in Florida called 911 because the sandwich shop made his pastrami wrong. A woman, also in Florida, called 911 to complain when McDonald's ran out of chicken nuggets. Are calls like this illegal?

Answer

Yes.

To call 911 for any purpose other than to report an emergency could result in criminal penalties.

Each state has different penalties for 911 misuse, but in the worst cases, abuse can lead to jail time and stiff fines.

Laws Vary

Virginia's penal code calls 911 abuse a "class 1 misdemeanor," which is punishable by up to a year in jail, a $2,500 fine, or both. In fact, in Virginia it's illegal to make false reports of emergencies or disasters by telephone to anyone - public or private - not justĀ the 911 lines. Many states have similar rules.

In California for example, calling 911 with the intent to annoy or harass an individual (such as calling 911 claiming a neighbor's house is on fire when it isn't) may lead to fines of up to $1,000, six months in jail, or both. To repeatedly call 911 in California for non-emergency reasons can lead to fines as high as $200 per call.

SWATting

A prank that is growing in popularity, especially among teen boys, is called SWATting. A false report of a critical situation--such as a hostage or standoff with guns--is made to authorities using the address of the person being pranked.

If the situation sounds critical enough, law enforcement might respond with a tactical force, commonly known as a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team. The unsuspecting target of the prank could find him- or herself on the receiving end of a flash-bang grenade or ordered to come out of the premises at gunpoint.

With internet phones and mobile phones, calls to law enforcement can be made from across the country anonymously. Incidents of SWATting have happened where the target of the prank and the prankster have only met online and live in different states.

SWATting is extremely dangerous and could easily lead to someone being hurt or killed by law enforcement--or mistaking a responding officer for an intruder and hurting law enforcement.

Tough Message to Get Right

Emergency call centers are careful not to discourage proper use of 911, and most will educate callers that use the service incorrectly. Nearly all cases of 911 abuse that are prosecuted stem from egregious violations. For example, a woman in Oregon was arrested for calling 911 in order to see a particular deputy sheriff she thought was cute. Similarly, a Texas man called 911 to ask a dispatcher on a date. And a Florida man was arrested in 2003 after calling 911 more than 900 times.

If you are unsure when to call 911, then use your best judgment.

It's much worse to not call 911 when a life is in danger than it is to call for less than an emergency.

Think in terms of immediacy: Do seconds count? If an intruder is in the house, the police need to respond immediately before someone gets hurt - call 911. However, finding a smashed car window and a missing stereo in your driveway in the morning can be reported on a non-emergency line.

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