New law stiffens penalties for swatting perpetrators

A bill that designates swatting as a felony and establishes more stringent punishments for the crime has been signed into law by Gov. Chris Christie.

“It is time to send a message that this is not going to be treated lightly,” said Assemblyman Paul Moriarty (D-Camden, Gloucester), who sponsored the bill and was himself the victim of a swatting incident.

Under the new law, anyone found guilty of swatting or inciting false public alarm would be convicted of a second degree offense that could carry a prison term of up to 10 years, up to $150,000 in fines, or both.

The bill (A-4375/S-3014) was passed in the state Assembly on June 11 with a vote of 74-0 and in the state Senate on June 26 with a vote of 40-0. Christie signed it into law two weeks ago.

Under swatting’s previous designation as a third degree offense, the crime was punishable by a prison term of three to five years, a fine of up to $15,000, or both.

According to the FBI, swatting is the practice of making a hoax call to 911 to draw a response from law enforcement, which can include the deployment of a SWAT team.

“We are talking about elaborate hoaxes that have drawn teams of specially trained officers, sometimes resulting in the closure of whole city blocks or roads, and occasionally even causing serious harm … to the unsuspecting and innocent people who have these teams show up at their door,” Moriarty said.

In practice, a swatting call can be made through an Internet messaging program with one person posing as a victim or perpetrator of an emergency situation while others on the line remain silent and listen to the false narrative.

A swatting call is considered to be successful by its perpetrators if a SWAT team or other emergency personnel respond to the alleged threat.

Along with the increase in fines and prison time, the new law also calls for the potential of a $2,000 civil penalty, or the actual costs incurred by law enforcement and emergency services for responding to a false alarm.

“Unnecessarily deploying emergency responders diverts critically important resources from responding to a real emergency,” said Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-Somerset, Hunterdon, Mercer and Middlesex). “Time spent verifying a false alarm and the diversion of manpower is a real danger.”

This year, swatting incidents have occurred at schools in Allentown and in Holmdel. Moriarty was the target of a swatting incident at his home after the bill (now law) he proposed began drawing attention in the media. No one was harmed in any of those incidents.

In October, a Connecticut man was sentenced to 366 days in federal prison, three years of probation and 300 hours of community service as a result of his involvement in two swatting incidents in 2014 that led to evacuations at Allentown High School, Allentown, and St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel.

“A lot of swatters are young and techsavvy,” said Assemblyman Bob Andrzejczak (D-Cape May, Atlantic, Cumberland). “I am sure they can have bright careers ahead of them if they want it. So hopefully the idea of serious jail time and fines will help deter them from throwing their futures away over a stupid prank.”