Is It Illegal to Call 911 for a Non-Emergency?

A swat team about to enter a home
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Calling 911 for any purpose other than to report a true emergency could result in criminal penalties. Each state has different punishments for 911 misuse, but in the worst cases, abuse can lead to jail time and stiff fines.

It is important to everyone's safety that emergency services' time and energy are spent where they are needed. Calling 911 for anything other than its intended purposes can threaten that.

Penalties for Misusing 911

If you ever find yourself compelled to call 911 for something that isn't a true emergency, like complaining about a rude salesperson, you should think again. Not only do non-emergency calls to 911 clog up the lines for real emergencies, but doing this comes with significant penalties.

In Virginia, for example, the state's penal code calls 911 abuse a "class 1 misdemeanor," which is punishable by up to a year in jail, a $2,500 fine, or both. In fact, in Virginia, it is illegal to make false reports of emergencies or disasters by telephone to anyone, public or private—not just to 911. Many states have similar rules.

In California, calling 911 with the intent to annoy or harass an individual—such as calling 911 claiming a neighbor's house is on fire when it isn't—may lead to fines of up to $1,000, six months in jail, or both. To repeatedly call 911 in California for non-emergency reasons can lead to fines as high as $200 per call.

911 Pranks: Dangerous and Illegal

Falsely reporting a critical situation—such as a hostage or standoff with guns—is no laughing matter. Sometimes called SWATing, the idea behind this reckless form of pranking is to have authorities sent to the address of a person being pranked, falsely believing there is a critical emergency.

If the situation sounds critical enough, law enforcement might respond with a tactical force, commonly known as a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team. The unsuspecting target of the prank could find themselves on the receiving end of a flash-bang grenade or ordered to come out of the premises at gunpoint.

SWATting is extremely dangerous and could easily lead to someone being hurt or killed by law enforcement—or mistaking a responding officer for an intruder and hurting law enforcement.

What If You Call 911 Accidentally?

The strictest laws are intended to curb unnecessary calling by people who are truly abusing the emergency line. If you call 911 by accident, it's important to not panic and hang up. According to the National 911 Program, this could lead emergency dispatchers to believe there is an emergency and to send first responders to your location. This wastes valuable resources that could be used to respond to true emergencies.

Mistakes happen. Calmly remain on the line and explain the situation.

When in Doubt, Make the Call

Emergency call centers are careful not to discourage proper use of 911, and most will educate callers that use the service incorrectly.

Nearly all cases of 911 abuse that are prosecuted stem from clear violations. For example, a Florida man was arrested in 2003 after calling 911 more than 900 times.

When deciding if you should call 911, think in terms of immediacy: Do seconds count? If an intruder is in the house, then the police need to respond immediately before someone gets hurt. This is always a warranted use of 911.

However, finding a smashed car window and a missing stereo in your driveway in the morning is an issue that can be reported on a non-emergency line. Call your local police headquarters.

If you are unsure when to call 911, use your best judgment. It is much worse to not call 911 when a life is in danger than it is to call for less than an emergency.

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