If you're accused by law enforcement or federal investigators of "swatting," you could face numerous federal or state charges—possibly both.
Swatting may be seen as a prank or an act of retribution, but because it involves law enforcement showing up with serious firepower, it can also be unintentionally deadly. For this reason, being convicted of crimes related to swatting can result in significant fines and prison time.
Swatting is essentially a form of harassment to deceive an emergency service provider into sending a police and emergency service response team to someone's address due to the false reporting of a serious emergency.
The people who engage in this illegal activity use technology, such as caller ID spoofing and prank calls, to make it appear that the emergency call is coming from the victim's phone.
While most swatters direct their unlawful behavior at individuals and specific residences, they sometimes target businesses, shopping malls, airports, and schools. There have also been reports of celebrity swatting, where the targets are well-known.
These types of calls are dangerous to first responders and to the victims. Often, there are false reports of bombs and hostages. Citizens are placed in a perilous situation as police rush to an alleged scene of a crime, believing there is an actual emergency.
Simply put, “swatting” is making a fake 9-1-1 call to get a response from law enforcement, usually a SWAT team. As noted, those engaging in swatting use technology to conceal the true source of their phone call. Swatting is often a prank and an act of revenge, but it has potentially dangerous consequences in either case.
What Is Swatting?
Swatting is a malicious act that poses a significant potential threat to public safety. Named after the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams often involved, swatting refers to the front of making a false report, typically involving a violent crime or bomb threat, to law enforcement in an attempt to dispatch an emergency response team to a specific address.
This is often done as a prank or revenge targeted at an individual or company. The federal government takes swatting very seriously and may charge you with one or more federal offenses for doing it. Numerous states have laws that also criminalize swatting, but the federal government takes precedence in many cases.
Why is Swatting a Severe Crime?
Swatting is not a harmless joke; it is a dangerous crime with potentially deadly consequences. Let's look at why federal prosecutors take swatting so seriously.
- Potential for Violence: Swatting can lead to violent encounters as law enforcement officers enter a situation believing there is an imminent threat. This can result in harm to innocent individuals who are unaware of the false report.
- Misuse of Emergency Resources: When law enforcement and emergency services respond to a swatting call, they are diverted from actual emergencies. This can delay response times to real crimes or incidents, potentially endangering lives.
- Causing Public Fear and Panic: When law enforcement shows up to a location en masse and heavily armed, it can cause significant distress and fear among onlookers. This can produce public panic, which can be dangerous as people scramble to escape the scene.
- Potential for Escalation: A swatting incident can escalate rapidly, especially if the targeted individual reacts out of fear or confusion. This can lead to unnecessary confrontations and potential harm.
- Financial Impact: Swatting comes with a significant cost. The mobilization of SWAT teams and other resources is expensive and burdens taxpayers.
- Risk of Death: There have been instances where swatting has tragically resulted in fatalities. Innocent people have lost their lives due to the reckless actions of others.
What Are the Legal Implications of Swatting"
Swatting is a violation of both federal and multiple state laws. At the federal level, it may constitute several specific crimes, including but not limited to:
- False Information and Hoaxes (18 U.S.C. 1038): This law criminalizes the conveyance of false information, knowing it to be inaccurate, concerning an attempt or alleged attempt being made or to be made, to kill, injure, or intimidate any individual or unlawfully to damage or destroy any building, vehicle, or other real or personal property using fire or an explosive.
- Fraud and related activity in connection with computers (18 U.S.C. 1030): If the swatting incident involves hacking into someone else's phone or computer to make the false report, the offender could be charged under this statute, which prohibits unauthorized access to a protected computer to further intended fraud.
- Interstate Threatening Communication (18 U.S.C. 875(c)): This statute makes it a federal crime to transmit any communication containing a threat to injure the person of another interstate or foreign commerce.
18 U.S. Code 1038 false information and hoaxes says “(a) Criminal Violation. (1) In general — Whoever engages in any conduct with intent to convey false or misleading information under circumstances where such information may reasonably be believed and where such information indicates that an activity has taken, is taking, or will take place that would constitute a violation of chapter 2, 10, 11B, 39, 40, 44, 111, or 113B of this title, section 236 of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (42 U.S.C. 2284), or section 46502, the second sentence of section 46504, section 46505(b)(3) or (c), section 46506 if homicide or attempted homicide is involved, or section 60123(b) of title 49, shall be…”
What Are the Penalties?
The penalties for criminal offenses related to swatting are potentially severe, depending on the circumstances and the specific statutes under which you're charged.
For example, 18 U.S.C. 1038 violations can lead to imprisonment for up to five years. However, considering the dangers involved, if someone is seriously injured because of a swatting incident, the maximum penalty escalates to 20 years in prison. If death results, the penalty could be life imprisonment.
What Are the Possible Defenses?
If you're charged with a crime related to a swatting incident, a federal criminal defense attorney may employ one or more strategies to combat the charges. Common defenses may include the following:
- Lack of Intent: Your attorney may argue that you did not intend to cause harm or disrupt services by your actions.
- Mistake of Fact: If your attorney can show evidence that you made the call in good faith, believing there was a legitimate threat, this could be a valid defense.
- Mistaken Identity: If you can demonstrate they were not the person who made the hoax call, this could serve as a defense.
- Duress or Coercion: If your attorney can prove you were forced or coerced into making the swatting call under threat of harm, this could either get the charges dismissed, result in acquittal, or at least help to mitigate penalties.
Contact our law firm to review the case details and to discuss legal options. Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles, California.