The Crime of Swatting: Laws and Penalties

Though sometimes referred to as a hoax or a prank, “swatting” is a crime and can land the swatter in prison. Learn about the specifics of swatting and some of the consequences it can lead to.

By , Attorney

Swatting—reporting a false emergency to get the police to respond—isn't just a prank. It's a federal (and often state) crime that can be either a felony or misdemeanor and can carry a stiff sentence, including years or even life in prison.

What Is Swatting?

Swatting—sometimes spelled SWATing—happens when one or more people make a false report to emergency dispatchers, usually through 911 calls. The swatters might report something like a hostage situation, bomb threat, or active shooter. The goal is to get a SWAT team (special weapons and tactics) or other police units to respond to a location like someone's house or a school.

Swatters often act alone but sometimes band together to target victims. They're often tech-savvy and can make it look like their 911 calls are coming from the area of the false emergency, or even from the victim's phone. In reality, the swatters might be in another state.

Though pranks involving fake bomb threats and fire alarms have been around for years, swatting takes the false emergency to a new level. The kid who pulls the fire alarm at school might be acting on a dare or hoping for an evacuation during his history test, and the old-school bomb scare caller might get a kick out of causing a major disruption. But the modern swatter often intends to specifically target someone for extreme harassment.

What Motivates Swatting?

Swatting is often described as a hoax or a prank, and sometimes that might be the swatter's only intent. For example, a misguided kid might swat a celebrity like Ashton Kutcher, who himself made a career of pranking celebrities with his TV show Punk'd.

Swatting is also popular in some segments of the gaming community, where some gamers swat other, high-profile gamers who are live-streaming their gaming competitions. The police response not only interrupts the gamer's progress but also allows the swatters in the online audience to see their hoax unfold in real time. Swatters in the gaming world often enjoy what they think of as bragging rights for pulling off a high-profile swatting incident.

The intent behind swatting can have a darker side, though. People who are angry at others for personal or political reasons have swatted their perceived enemies. Sometimes, they seek revenge or are motivated by racism or other prejudices. Some swatters simply enjoy the power they have over their victims.

The Dangers of Swatting

No matter what the motivation is, swatting is dangerous because it can lead to a violent response from the police, who believe they're dealing with a lethal threat.

In one case, for example, the police responded to a false report that someone had shot his father, was holding the rest of his family hostage, and was going to burn their house down. Though the man had done nothing wrong, the police surrounded his house and fatally shot him when he stepped outside.

Swatting can also cause extreme and lasting distress to victims who find themselves suddenly swarmed by officers in tactical gear pointing weapons and yelling orders. It can also pull officers away from valid emergencies that could be happening elsewhere during the swatting incident.

Is Swatting Illegal?

The federal government and many states have laws that make swatting a crime. Under federal law, depending on the facts, a swatter can be charged with several possible offenses, including:

  • "false information and hoaxes" if they call in something like a fake bomb, arson threat, or similar large-scale emergency to elicit a police response
  • stalking if the swatting could cause someone significant emotional distress or if it places them in fear of serious injury or death
  • internet threats for threatening to injure someone, and
  • wire fraud for relaying false information that causes a waste of law enforcement's resources.

Swatters can often be charged under state laws, too. Many states, including California, New Jersey, and Texas, make it a crime to call in a fake bomb threat or other false emergency. Depending on the facts, state prosecutors might charge other offenses as well, such as criminal threats.

Even milder forms of false reporting that wouldn't likely elicit a full-blown SWAT response (such as reporting a false assault or burglary) can be charged as false reporting.

And some states, like California and New Jersey, have passed laws that make false reports hate crimes when they're racially motivated or stem from other prejudices against protected groups.

(18 U.S.C. §§ 844 (e), 875(c), 1038, 1343, 2261A (2022); Cal. Penal Code §§ 148.1, 148.3 (2022); N.J. Stat. § 2C:33-3 (2022); Tex. Penal Code § 42.0601 (2022).)

What is the Punishment for Swatting? Is it a Felony?

Under federal law, swatting is generally punished as a felony, and a conviction can result in years in prison. For example, the crime of false information and hoaxes carries up to five years in prison. But if serious bodily injury results, the sentence increases to up to 20 years. If death results, the person could face life in prison. (18 U.S.C. § 1038 (2022).)

Misdemeanor vs. Felony in State Cases

In many states, swatting offenses can be misdemeanors or felonies, depending on the law the person is charged under and the facts of the offense.

For example, in states like California and Texas, reporting a false emergency is a misdemeanor unless someone is seriously injured or killed, in which case it's a felony if the person should have known that injury or death could occur. In Texas, swatting is also a felony if it elicits an emergency response. And in California, even if no one's hurt, a fake bomb threat is a wobbler, meaning it can be either a misdemeanor or a felony.

(Cal. Penal Code §§ 148.1, 148.3 (2022); Tex. Penal Code § 42.0601 (2022).)

Jail and Prison

The punishment for state swatting offenses varies from state to state. A misdemeanor offense where no one was injured might be punished by up to a year in county jail in some states. When someone is harmed, the punishment is going to be greater. In California, for example, a swatting offense that leads to serious injury or death carries a sentence of up to three years.

Other states punish swatting much more severely. In New Jersey, for example, a false report of a bomb threat, active shooter, or hostage situation is punished by five to 10 years in prison if it causes an immediate or heightened police response. And a false report that results in someone's death carries a sentence of 10 to 20 years in that state.

So, while swatting is often regarded as simply mischievous, it's a serious offense. Anyone who has been or could be charged with this crime or another offense should consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

(Cal. Penal Code § 148.3 (2022); N.J. Stat. § 2C:33-3, 2C:43-6 (2022).)

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