Proposed National Law Would Crack Down on Swatters with Serious Jail Time

The Interstate Swatting Hoax Act of 2015 would criminalize swatting with up to five years of prison time—more if someone actually gets hurt.

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Nov 20 2015, 7:22pm

Image: WEBN TV/Flickr

On Wednesday, Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts and Rep. Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania introduced the Interstate Swatting Hoax Act of 2015, a federal anti-swatting bill.

Swatting is the act of calling in a fake police emergency in order to send a SWAT team to someone's house. It's one of the most extreme forms of online abuse. It is in essence, assault by proxy.

Under the newly proposed law, sending false or misleading information over interstate communications networks to intentionally cause an emergency response would be a felony.

Although there's already federal legislation on the books criminalizing calling in fake terrorist attacks or bomb threats, it doesn't cover calling in other fake emergencies, according to the lawmakers' press release. This bill purports to close that "loophole."

The penalty for calling in a fake emergency under the bill would depend on what happens after the call. It's only a crime if an emergency response is actually dispatched—if the police simply don't believe you, you're not on the hook. You get up to five years for a mere dispatch and up to 20 if "serious bodily injury" results. If someone dies from being swatted, you could be in prison for life.

Swatting is a scary experience, and fortunately for victims, it does what a lot of online abuse doesn't—it really pisses off cops

It should go without saying that killing someone with a fake 911 call is, at the moment, not exactly legal in the United States. Even if you didn't "directly" cause a death, the legal system doesn't look kindly on indirectly causing death if you did it intentionally or should have known better. Any swatting is likely illegal under both state and federal law, and probably a reasonable target for any number of civil claims to boot.

Brian Krebs, a security journalist, was swatted in 2013. A fake 911 call brought "heavily armed local police unit" to his house. When he stepped outside his front door to take care of some mundane housekeeping, he found cops pointing guns at him.

I heard someone yell, "Don't move! Put your hands in the air." Glancing up from my squat, I saw a Fairfax County Police officer leaning over the trunk of a squad car, both arms extended and pointing a handgun at me. As I very slowly turned my head to the left, I observed about a half-dozen other squad cars, lights flashing, and more officers pointing firearms in my direction, including a shotgun and a semi-automatic rifle.

Krebs was handcuffed, but eventually came out of the incident unscathed. But the police do not enjoy being played with. The Department of Justice launched an investigation, and at least one perpetrator pleaded guilty. So swatters are being charged under existing federal laws—namely, under 18 USC 371, which criminalizes "conspiracy to defraud the United States." (In 2014, a man plead guilty to similar charges in a swatting case out of Texas.)

You can think of this charge as somewhat similar to an obstruction of justice charge. Section 371 criminalizes conspiracy with the intent of "impairing, obstructing or defeating the lawful functions of any department of Government."

At first glance, it's not such a huge stretch to charge under section 371. Aside from the potential it has to literally kill someone, swatting directs police time and resources away from real crime to a hoax, thus impairing a lawful function of government. According to Rep. Clark's press release, 400 swatting attacks happen every year, with some attacks "reported to cost local law enforcement agencies as much as $100,000."

What the Clark-Meehan bill does is not only to put something on the books that's very specific to swatting, but also to add years in prison for when swatting actually hurts people. (It also adds a civil cause of action, which may or may not be a great idea).

A federal anti-swatting bill is useful for the most classic reason why any federal legislation is useful: because interstate hijinks make prosecuting swatting kind of complicated. And when people are abusing each other online, the chances that they're from different parts of the country (if they're even in the same country at all) go up.

Say Nora, who lives in New Jersey, swats Carl, who lives in California. The California police actually take Carl's swatting seriously, and investigate the case. The trail leads to Nora in New Jersey. Swatting is at least a misdemeanor in California. But would they really bother extraditing Nora from New Jersey?

Let's say the California police drop the issue. What about the New Jersey police? New Jersey also has a statute against reporting false emergencies. But Nora, though a citizen of New Jersey, abused California's state resources in order to swat Carl. Are New Jersey police, who are in a better position to go after Nora, going to bother when they weren't the ones who got punked? And in any case, does New Jersey state law even apply?

Probably? Maybe? It likely depends on the exact wording of whatever state statute you're looking at. It's best if California and New Jersey team up to deal with Nora, but that's just another hurdle to deal with what is an increasingly common form of extreme online abuse.

Swatting is a scary experience, and fortunately for victims, it does what a lot of online abuse doesn't—it really pisses off cops. But when you're relying on local authorities to properly address something that is essentially an interstate crime, you're going to have a bad time. And the Interstate Swatting Hoax Act will cover swatting even if victim and perpetrator live in the same state, as long as an interstate "telecommunications network" is used to make the hoax communication—thus adding uniformity to how swatting is dealt with.

If there are really 400 swattings a year—400 opportunities for the police to accidentally shoot someone over a hoax—maybe a federal crackdown is warranted. If it the Interstate Swatting Hoax Act can make it through Congress, it might do a lot of good.