Can Prank Calls Get You Arrested in Utah?

Salt Lake City criminal lawyer

Most of the time, prank calls are nothing more than harmless fun.  Dialing a random number and seeing what happens or calling someone you know and using a fake voice has been a form of entertainment for nearly as long as telephones have existed.  However, not all prank calls are fun and games.  There are many situations where a prank call can be far more harmful and may even lead to criminal charges.  The Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyers at Overson Law explain.

Criminal Charges for Prank Phone Calls

When you make a prank phone call, it doesn’t mean that everyone else knows it’s a prank or that the target of the call won’t be upset by what you say.  Many criminal laws dealing with phone calls and interpersonal communications address the speaker’s intent, but they also look at how the recipient of the communication feels and what the speaker should reasonably expect.  In some cases, phone calls may appear threatening or harassing, even if you intend them as a joke.

Charges for threats can be filed for prank phone calls that discuss violence or injury if the victim feels threatened.  Utah Code § 76-5-107 makes it illegal to issue threats of violence, including “injury, death, or substantial property damage.”  These threats can still be illegal even if the actor has no way of making the threat come to be, which means that the distance of having the conversation over the phone doesn’t protect you from potential charges.  These kinds of charges could stem from prank phone calls pretending to be inside the recipient’s house or threatening to come to their house and assault them.

Terroristic threats are even more serious.  Utah Code § 76-5-107.3 makes it illegal to issue fake bomb threats and other “prank calls” dealing with threats of mass violence.  This could include threats of a mass shooting or fake calls pretending to be part of a terrorist group.

While it is typically a lower-level offense than the two listed above, you can also be charged with harassment for prank phone calls.  Harassment under Utah Code 76-5-106 requires that the communication was written or recorded and that it specifically included a threat to commit “any violent felony,” such as assault, kidnapping, or murder.  Repeated harassing phone calls could alternatively result in stalking charges under § 76-5-106.5 or charges for electronic communication harassment under § 76-5-201.

Charges for Prank Calling the Police and “Swatting”

Filing false police reports or calling 9-1-1 as part of a prank call is strictly prohibited.  Calls to emergency services should only be made in actual emergencies, otherwise, the call ties up phone lines and wastes time and money for the 9-1-1 call center and its workers.  This is punished with criminal charges in Utah.

Filing a false police report as part of a prank call could further waste resources if the caller actually asks for police, fire, or EMT response.  If police have to respond to a situation that turns out to be a hoax, they will have wasted further resources and time, potentially increasing the penalties you could face.  If the prank call involves threats of violence or terrorism, such as a fake bomb threat or fake mass shooting call, you could face independent charges for that conduct.

One unfortunately common way that these kinds of crimes are committed is by “swatting.”  Swatting is when someone calls the police to report a fake threatening situation or hostage situation with the intent of having police show up at someone’s house, potentially scaring them or even shooting them.  These calls are extremely serious and should not be treated as mere “pranks.”  Swatting has resulted in deaths and long terms of prison sentences in multiple cases across the country.  You may also be charged for the victim’s death or injuries.

In many of these cases, the caller can be punished by jail time and fines for the false report.  Crimes in Utah are classified as misdemeanors and felonies, which can be divided by how long the potential sentence is for the crime: misdemeanors typically have a maximum of under a year in jail while felonies have the potential of a year or more in prison.  The specific crimes you can be charged with for these kinds of prank calls range widely, but some of these crimes can be graded as a second degree felony.  That means spending a potential of 1-15 years in prison and paying fines up to $10,000 for the false report alone.

In addition to the fines and court costs for these cases, the defendant can also be made to pay for any expenses that state or federal departments or agencies expended responding to the fake report.  This means that the expense of sending SWAT teams or EMTs to the scene, the cost of shutting down schools or government buildings, and the other costs associated with stalling or halting activities to ensure everything is safe can all be billed to you.

This is an extremely steep price to pay for a prank phone call.  If you made prank calls and think that you could be facing criminal charges for your actions, talk to a lawyer right away.

Call Our Utah Criminal Defense Attorneys for a Free Consultation

If you or a loved one was charged with a crime like harassment or terroristic threats for a prank phone call, call Overson Law today.  Our Utah criminal defense lawyers represent the accused in criminal cases and juvenile court to help protect our clients from jail time and fines.  To schedule a free legal consultation with our attorneys, call us today at (801) 758-2287.