An Assembly panel on Monday approved legislation to crack down on the dangerous trend known as “swatting” after a string of recent hoax incidents in New Jersey drew large-scale law enforcement responses. The bill was sponsored by Assembly Democrats Paul Moriarty, Bob Andrzejczak, Vince Mazzeo, Gabriela Mosquera and Annette Quijano.
The FBI describes “swatting” as making a hoax call to 9-1-1 to draw a response from law enforcement, usually a SWAT team. The individuals who engage in this activity, many of whom are teens and twenty-somethings with ties to the online gaming community, use technology to make it appear that the emergency call is coming from the victim’s phone. The FBI notes that sometimes swatting is done for revenge, sometimes as a prank, but either way, it is a serious crime that has potentially dangerous consequences.
“To say swatting is troublesome is a severe understatement,” said Moriarty (D-Camden/Gloucester). “We’re talking about elaborate hoaxes that have drawn teams of specially trained officers, sometimes resulting in the closure of whole city blocks or roads, and occasionally even causing serious harm, like heart attacks, to the unsuspecting and innocent people who have these teams show up at their door. It’s time to send a message that this is not going to be treated lightly.”
Moriarty first introduced a bill in November in response to a swatting incident in Millville where a law enforcement team swarmed an innocent family’s house believing a violent altercation was taking place inside. After recent news reports drew attention to his efforts to crack down on the trend, he then became the victim of a swatting incident himself.
Since then, a string of more recent swatting incidents in New Jersey — including a gaming shop in Clifton, a home in Upper Freehold and an elementary School in Homdel — have underscored the urgency of enacting swifter penalties for hoaxes and false alarms.
“A lot of swatters are young and tech-savvy,” said Andrzejczak (Cape May/Atlantic/ Cumberland). “I’m sure they can have a bright career ahead of them if they want it. So hopefully the idea of serious jail time and fines will help deter them from throwing their futures away over a stupid prank.”
The bill approved today (A-4375) would upgrade the crime of false public alarm to a crime of the second degree whenever such an alarm presents a report or warning of an especially dangerous scenario or targets certain places. The bill would also require statewide law enforcement reporting on all incidents of false public alarms.
“These are not innocent prank calls like many kids did growing up,” said Mazzeo (D-Atlantic). “The whole goal of the hoax is to draw a large scale law enforcement response. Not only does this put innocent people in harm’s way, but it wastes taxpayer dollars and diverts valuable resources from dealing with other legitimate crimes.”
Under current law, such an act is ordinarily a crime of the third degree, punishable by a term of imprisonment of three to five years, a fine of up to $15,000, or both. Under the bill approved today, the crime, as upgraded, would be punishable by a term of imprisonment of five to 10 years, a fine of up to $150,000, or both.
“Clearly this a trend that is not going away right now, but rather gathering steam,” said Mosquera. “Without any real way to stop it, we have to send a message that the hoax is not worth the risk of getting caught if it carries serious jail time and monetary penalties.”
The primary intent of the sponsor is to address an increasingly troublesome form of false public alarm sometimes referred to as “swatting,” which results in the immediate and often aggressive deployment or use of law enforcement and other first responders against unsuspecting persons who are unaware that a false report or warning was made.
“Authorities estimate that the dangerous hoax costs New Jersey law enforcement agencies tens of thousands of dollars every year while diverting resources from other real crimes and putting innocent residents in the crossfire,” said Quijano (D-Union). “This demands a concerted effort to both crack down on this practice and underscore the severity of it so parents can talk to their kids about it and stay on top of their activities.”
Specifically, the bill would upgrade the crime of false public alarm to a crime of the second degree whenever the act:
1) involved a report or warning of an impending bombing, hostage situation, or person armed with a deadly weapon; or
2) involved a report or warning about any critical infrastructure located in this state, defined as “any building, place of assembly, or facility that is indispensably necessary for national security, economic stability, or public safety.”
The responsible party would also be liable, based on current law, for a civil penalty of $2,000 or the actual costs incurred by or resulting from the law enforcement and emergency services response to the false alarm.
Under the bill’s reporting requirement, all local and county law enforcement authorities would have to submit an annual report, on a form prescribed by the Attorney General, to the Uniform Crime Reporting Unit of the Division of State Police, or to another designated recipient determined by the Attorney General, containing the number and nature of false public alarm offenses committed within their respective jurisdictions and the disposition of these offenses.
Every two years, a summary of all reports received during the preceding two-year period, along with a summary of offenses investigated by the Division of State Police for the same period, would be forwarded to the state’s Office of Emergency Management.
The measure was approved by the Assembly Homeland Security and State Preparedness Committee chaired by Quijano. It would take effect on the first day of the fourth month following enactment.