Bills passed last year in California, Connecticut and New Jersey added offenses for false 911 reports made to harass or intimidate a person or group based on actual or perceived characteristics such as race, gender or sexual orientation.
Some States Crack Down on Discriminatory False 911 Reports
By Mia Geoly | Sept. 3, 2021 | State Legislatures News | Print
Viral videos showing 911 calls being used to harass or intimidate people from minority groups led four states to enact legislation penalizing such behavior last year. Currently, at least 23 states have laws against filing false 911 reports to discourage people from wasting emergency response resources; however, most of these laws do not include language criminalizing discriminatory intent. Legislatures continued to debate the issue in 2021, but no bills regarding false 911 reports with discriminatory intent have been enacted thus far.
In 2020, California, Connecticut, New Jersey and Washington passed legislation regarding false 911 reports. The bills passed in California, Connecticut and New Jersey added offenses for false 911 reports made to harass or intimidate a person or group based on actual or perceived characteristics such as race, gender or sexual orientation.
California had already enacted legislation holding a person responsible for the cost of the unnecessary emergency response. The 2020 bill enhanced existing penalties for using a false 911 report to harass someone and increased penalties for using a false 911 report to commit a hate crime based on someone else’s perceived characteristics.
The 911 emergency system is not designed to be a dispatch center for racist or biased callers seeking police action against a law-abiding citizen. —California Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer
Washington’s bill increased the penalties for false 911 reports and added a third-degree felony offense of false reporting if someone dies as a result, and a second-degree felony if someone is injured. The bill added a statutory note emphasizing that false 911 reports have recently been weaponized against protected classes, so the Legislature determined that a misdemeanor is insufficient punishment for false reports that result in death.
The language of the 14 bills introduced in Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina and Texas in 2021 is similar to that contained in the measures enacted in 2020. But so far this year, all of the legislation with language regarding racial profiling or reports intended to harass or intimidate members of a protected class has failed or is pending. One of the pending bills in New Jersey (SB 1521) contains unique language upgrading the state’s false public alarm offense “when an act is done knowing it will result in law enforcement response against certain persons.” While Texas created the offense of false emergency reporting in 2021 (SB 1056), it did not include an enhanced penalty or additional offense for discriminatory harassment or intimidation.
The bills introduced and enacted in 2020 and 2021 aimed to prevent wasting emergency response resources, some of them focusing on false reports made with intent to discriminate or harass. “The 911 emergency system is not designed to be a dispatch center for racist or biased callers seeking police action against a law-abiding citizen,” said Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D), a bill sponsor of California’s AB 1775. It remains to be seen whether states with pending or failed 2021 bills will continue to pursue the issue of discriminatory false 911 reports in coming legislative sessions. To track bills on false 911 reports and other 911-related legislation, check out NCSL’s 911 bill tracking database.
Mia Geoly is an intern in NCSL’s Transportation Program.