General Assembly passes anti-swatting bill to halt prank emergency calls

April 5, 2023

The Daily Record

Swatting, a prank emergency call about incidents like an active shooter or bomb threat to prompt an aggressive law enforcement response, will be a misdemeanor crime punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 or prison time, under a Maryland state bill that awaits a signature from Gov. Wes Moore.

If someone is seriously injured or killed as a result of the swatting incident, the person who made the phony emergency call could face felony charges, including up to 10 years in prison and/or a $20,000 maximum fine.

Maryland lawmakers passed the bill, SB 340, just days after at least five Harvard University Police Department officers raided an undergraduate suite early Monday morning for false reports of an armed person in the building and ordered four students — all of whom are Black — out of their room at gunpoint, according to a story published Tuesday in The Harvard Crimson student newspaper.

Moore, a Democrat, is expected to begin signing bills Tuesday. The legislative session is scheduled to wrap up on Monday.

In swatting, prank callers often target people based on their race, religion or sexual orientation, said Sen. Cheryl Kagan, D-Montgomery, who sponsored the bill.

People have also used swatting to target schools, Kagan said.

“People are calling with false reports, saying there’s an active shooter in this school,” Kagan said during a hearing for the bill in February. “Police are dispatched, guns out, ready to defend these defenseless, innocent children.”

In October, the Howard County Police Department responded to River Hill High School in Clarksville after a false claim that a student had a gun and a bomb, according to a report from the Anti-Defamation League, an anti-hate organization. Officers handcuffed four students who weren’t responsible for the threat while law enforcement investigated the incident.

Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher, D-Montgomery, who sponsored the bill with Kagan, said that people from subcultures of either young white supremacists or gamers have turned to swatting as it has risen in prominence.

Swatting not only causes severe emotional distress to victims, it can also divert emergency response resources from where they’re actually needed, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

In December, a 17-year-old Maryland resident used swatting to retaliate against a Florida teenager in an online dispute. The Marylander falsely reported three times that there was gun violence happening at an address he believed to be the Floridian’s home, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

Each time, between 10 and 12 officers responded to the home of someone not involved in the dispute.

Both the state Senate and the House of Delegates voted unanimously to pass the bill, but support outside the legislature hasn’t been universal.

In a letter asking lawmakers to oppose the bill, the Maryland Office of the Public Defender wrote that Kagan’s proposal would be “useless against many actors” because it’s people outside the state, or even outside the country, who are responsible for “almost all high profile swatting incidents.”

In its letter, the Office of the Public Defender stated that the focus should be on training police officers and 911 operators to detect potentially fake calls.

“The only use of this newly proposed bill would be for public perception,” the letter states, “rather than effective change.”

The bill states that, for swatting, someone may be charged in the county where they made the false report, in the county where emergency personnel received the report or the county where law enforcement responded to the report.