At least two swatting measures are being looked at in the Missouri legislature in Jefferson City.
A quick Google search offers a dictionary definition of the term “swatting”. It’s an internet prank in which a person calls a law enforcement agency and reports a false crime in progress – many times involving hostages, a shooting or a bomb threat – in an effort to get the police to respond to a specific address.
The prank has been used by internet gamers across the country who use techniques such as caller ID spoofing to disguise the phone number as being local. They may also dial non-emergency numbers.
Two swatting bills, one from Republican Kevin Corlew of Kansas City, and the other from Republican Bill Kidd of Independence were filed this year after a December incident in Wichita, Kansas where a swat team killed an innocent man.
A gamer from Los Angeles was arrested and faces felony charges in Wichita. According to the Wichita Eagle, the crime carries a maximum penalty of probation or less than three years in prison.
The Wichita victim, 28-year-old Andrew Finch, was killed by police who were responding to a residence where they were told a man had killed his father, was holding his mother and brother hostage and was threatening set fire to the home they were in.
The bills from Corlew and Kidd have very similar language, although they differ in a couple of ways. Corlew’s measure creates additional penalties for swatting within the existing offense of “filing a false report”, while Kidd’s offering establishes a new offense known as “causing an emergency response”.
For his part, Corlew said he wanted to avoid creating a new statute that would add baggage to the criminal code that was revamped in 2014 and fully implemented last year.
Also, both plans have four levels of punishment depending on the outcome of the prank, but Kidd’s measure carries a lighter penalty if police aren’t dispatched. He says he’s trying to protect kids who might not realize the implications of what they’re doing.
“I didn’t want them to have to have a serious response on that if nothing occurred,” said Kidd. “In other words, that was to protect those (kids who would think), ‘Ya, we’re playing around. We know this is serious, but I’m 12-years-old’.”
Under Representative Kidd’s proposal, the swatting charge if no law enforcement personnel are dispatched would be a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of 15 days in jail and a $300 fine. The infraction remains a misdemeanor if police respond but there are no further complications. However, the punishment increases to between 30-days and six-months in jail and a fine of up to $500.
Felony charges kick in if the victim of swatting receives serious bodily injury or dies. Both the Corlew and Kidd plans carry prison sentences from four-to-seven years and fines up to $10,000 for felony swatting. But under Corlew’s proposal, jail time and fines are higher at the misdemeanor level.
During the hearing, Republican Representative Justin Hill of Lake St. Louis asked why the charges wouldn’t be more severe if serious injury or death occurred. “If we’re looking to end this practice, why wouldn’t we make the death similar to a manslaughter or murder (charge)?,” said Hill.
Corlew, a Kansas City attorney, responded by saying charges in addition to swatting could be brought if there was an injury or death from the incident.
Kidd’s bill calls for courts imposing swatting sentences to order the offender to reimburse any party for the expenses caused by the emergency response. Corlew’s bill has a similar provision that calls for a harmed party to be reimbursed.
But during the hearing, Corlew said the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, which has endorsed his bill, asked that the language be removed. He said the attorneys informed him that there are already provisions in the law to provide compensation for victims and to provide reimbursement for police agencies who incur expenses.
Democratic Representative Stacy Newman of St. Louis raised a concern over how the swatting legislation would impact victims of domestic abuse.
In one such scenario, a victim could call in domestic abuse and end up being charged with swatting if, under pressure from the abusing party, the victim says there’s nothing wrong when law enforcement personnel arrive. Both Kidd and Corlew agreed to insert language in their bills to protect domestic abuse victims.
No one spoke for-or-against the swatting bills during the hearing. Sheldon Lineback, Executive Director of the Missouri Police Chiefs Association, chose to speak for informational purposes. He said swatting presents a real danger to law enforcement agencies and communities.
“These individuals need to be held accountable for the actions that they’re taking,” said Line back. “Because they’re taking individuals, and putting officers in harm’s way who are running high level, high-speed responses to these situations that are occurring even in our smallest counties to our largest cities.”
Kidd said the legislation would make it clear that the act of swatting will have serious consequences. “So, what we’re trying to do is send a message that swatting is not an innocent prank,” Kidd said. “It’s not something that you put on social media.”