COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – A bill targeting pranksters who make false “swatting” calls to law enforcement will head to the floor of Ohio’s House of Representatives.
Passed out of the Criminal Justice Committee on Tuesday, House Bill 462 would establish swatting – the act of intentionally reporting false or misleading information to first responders – as its own offense, dinging those who do with a third-degree felony or, if physical harm ensued, a first-degree felony.
The swatter who caused a furor by falsely alerting police to a shooting at Central Ohio’s Licking Valley High School in September narrowly avoided tragedy. But the suspect left dozens of parents lining the streets, students in a frenzy and even an armed “gentleman with good intentions” to arrive on campus.
“As you can imagine, these types of pranks are extremely dangerous, not just for affected residents and their neighbors, but for law enforcement officers racing to get to the scene and into buildings or residences for the reported emergencies,” bill sponsor Rep. Kevin Miller (R-Newark) said.
The chaos that ensued in Licking Valley found its way across Ohio on Sept. 23 as part of a “statewide series of bogus phone calls,” including to Cristo Rey High School in downtown Columbus.
With school buildings frequently falling victim to swatting calls – including eight in September alone – representatives with the Ohio School Boards Association, Buckeye Association of School Administrators and Ohio Association of School Business Officials submitted written testimony Tuesday urging lawmakers to rally behind HB 462.
“In these cases, the fake calls have engaged ‘active shooter’ protocols and law enforcement has rushed to the scene,” the union representatives wrote. “These incidents are unnecessarily traumatic for students, staff, and families, and costly for communities.”
But Niki Klum, the legislative liaison for the Ohio Public Defender’s Office, is not convinced that HB 462 and Sen. Andrew Brenner’s (R-Delaware) counterpart Senate Bill 292 will deter future pranksters from inciting panic. Swatting, she said, is already unlawful and frequently punished as a felony under Ohio law.
Currently, someone who makes a swatting call can be slapped with a number of criminal charges: making false alarms, inducing panic, felonious assault or involuntary manslaughter, according to the Ohio Revised Code.
Making false alarms and inducing panic both begin as first-degree misdemeanors, Ohio law states. If physical or economic harm results, however, those punishments are upped to fourth- and fifth-degree felonies, respectively.
“The behavior it seeks to criminalize is already illegal and already a felony,” Klum said. “Adding additional overlapping charges just leads to a confusing criminal code, mistakes in the trial court, and the coercive stacking of charges.”
Mike Rodgers, the director of policy and legislation for Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, said in May that HB 462 does the opposite – it simplifies the code by standardizing the offense of swatting to a third-degree felony, with the potential for a harsher, first-degree felony if physical harm results.
HB 462 will now make its way to the floor of the Ohio House for a vote, which has yet to be scheduled.