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Stiffer swatting penalties in Virginia take effect in July, including potential jail time

A VCU Police van parked on the street. House Bill 1572 will increase punishments for making false calls to emergency services.
Posted at 3:49 PM, Apr 05, 2023

RICHMOND, Va. -- Legislation to increasepenalties for alerting police, fire or emergency medical services personnel to false emergencies passed the General Assembly with bipartisan support and will take effect on July 1.

House Bill 1572, introduced by Del. Wendell S. Walker, R-Lynchburg, will now make it a Class 1 misdemeanor to report a false emergency to emergency services, according to the bill. There are stronger penalties if someone is injured or dies as a result of the fake emergency.

Another term for this is “swatting.” Swatting involves calling 911 and faking an emergency that draws a response from law enforcement, according to a 2008 FBI warning.

Celebrities who were popular victims of swatting in the 2010s included Justin Bieber, Tom Cruise, Selena Gomez and Ashton Kutcher, according to an Indy Star article. More recently, schools and colleges have become the new targets of swatting, according to AP News. The increase in false threats to schools may not originate in the U.S., an FBI agent told AP News in November.

“We were finding out that a lot of the schools were getting these so-called bomb threats,” Walker said. “People calling in and saying something terrible is going to happen in the school or there's a bomb going to go off.”

The bill came out of several conversations with the Lynchburg police chief, law enforcement and local government, according to Walker. Young people are not taking these crimes seriously, Walker said.

“Not only is it a lot of cost to the localities as far as law enforcement, fire, 911, people like that responding,” Walker said. “What if in a situation, somebody was hurt or injured as a result of trying to evacuate a building or facilities?”

The law, when it goes into effect, will lead to either or both a $2,500 fine and up to 12 months in jail for calling in a fake emergency.

“If somebody was injured, say had a heart attack or somebody was hurt trying to get out of the building, that would be a Class 6 felony,” Walker said.

A Class 6 felony can come with prison time of no less than one year, according to state code.

“If there was a death, a fatality, then this would be a Class 5 felony,” Walker said.

In Virginia, Class 5 felonies come with a sentence ranging from at least one year of prison up to 10 years, or jail for no more than 12 months and a fine up to $2,500, according to state code.

“That was the message we wanted to send,” Walker said.

The individual who called in the threat would also be financially responsible for all costs associated with an emergency services response, according to Walker. Taxpayers should not be burdened with the cost because someone wanted to do something “dumb or crazy,” according to Walker.

“It was a much-needed bill, and it wasn't a partisan bill, it was more about public safety and about protecting our localities, our schools, other institutions,” Walker said. “I was glad to see that it was passed with an overwhelming majority of the vote.”

The new law has a very strong preventative message to it, according to Dana Schrad, executive director for the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police. The VACP is a nonprofit organization of over 600 active and retired law enforcement members, including administrators and managers, according to its website.

“This really does meet a need in terms of having an avenue to charge someone who makes a false report to law enforcement,” Schrad said. “We have these kinds of things happen at schools.”

Swatting can create a large public safety response, she said.

“You have a hard time determining whether or not you truly have an incident to respond to or whether it is based on a false report,” Schrad said.

Young people must understand the risk that comes along with prank calls, as they can “start an avalanche of events” that are both expensive and dangerous, according to Schrad.

The state legislature also passed an identicalSenate bill. Both were signed by the governor on March 16.

By Cassandra Loper with Capital News Service

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.