Senate OKs bill outlawing 911 hoax [Rep-Am]

May 5, 2017

‘Swatting’ will be a felony

Article as it appeared in the Republican-American

HARTFORD – State lawmakers on Wednesday moved to crack down on hoaxers who make false emergency calls to trigger large responses.

The Senate voted 34-0 to approve legislation to make “swatting” a felony in Connecticut that carries a maximum punishment of five years in prison.

“Swatting” is falsely reporting an emergency such as a home invasion, an active shooter or a hostage situation to get law enforcement or emergency personnel to respond immediately to a location where no emergency exists.

According to the Connecticut Intelligence Center, there have been 61 incidents of swatting since January 2015. The center is a collaboration of local, state and federal partner agencies.

In the Senate debate, Sen. Kevin D. Witkos, R-Canton, recounted a swatting incident last summer at Burr Pond State Park in Torrington that partly inspired him to propose the changes to state law.

At this time, swatting technically is not a crime in Connecticut, but anyone caught creating a false incident could be charged with several crimes, including misusing 911, breach of peace, threatening and falsely reporting a death.

The legislature’s budget office reported there were 28 arrests in the 2016 fiscal year for falsely reporting an incident. Of those cases, 23 were dismissed and plea bargains resolved the rest.

In the Burr Pond incident, a woman called 911 to report that her 3-year-old son had gone missing beneath shallow water, prompting a 3-hour search by more than 40 police officers and firefighters.

Police later found the mobile phone used to place the call in the women’s restroom at the state park. To date, no arrest has been made.

“Imagine if there was an unfortunate incident where somebody was injured in response to a scene like that,” said Witkos, a retired police officer and the second-ranking GOP leader in the Senate.

He noted the hoax call followed the real drowning of a 4-year-old boy at the park 10 days earlier.

The false drowning report also made regular visitors to Burr Pond State Park feel unsafe and uneasy, Witkos said.

In addition to creating a new crime, Senate Bill 26 authorizes state judges to order hoaxers to repay municipalities and the state for the costs of responding to false emergency calls. The response to the Burr Pond incident cost at least $2,700.

Swatting has been growing steadily since the FBI first issued warnings about it in 2008, following a case out of Washington state, where a teenager called police to say he had murdered someone but made it appear that the call came from the home of a married couple in California.

Nationwide, the FBI estimates there are 400 swatting incidents every year.

While some might consider swatting a prank, law enforcement and emergency responders say it is dangerous because it terrorizes victims, and places both victims and responders at risk.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said one of his constituents found a police SWAT team knocking on his door in the middle of the night after a hoax call about a possible murder at the home.

“He obviously had no idea what had happened,” he said, but the man and his son were brought down to the police department for questioning.

Senate Bill 26 next heads to the House for possible final action in the legislature.