TRENTON, NJ – Shortly before 3 p.m. on Sunday, July 22, Kenilworth police received a 911 phone call claiming that a resident was holding his brother and sister hostage with a pipe bomb. The call mobilized the Union County SWAT and bomb squads to the home and forced the evacuation of two dozen neighbors. The call was a prank known as swatting. The incident not only cost the tax payers, unnerved the victim and his neighbors, but could have resulted in injury for the participants.
That incident followed two that occurred the month before in neighboring towns. Last June, two schools in Cranford, the high school and Brookside, were placed on lockdown due to swatting. Next, it was Linden’s turn when all the city’s schools and its 6,000 students were locked down due to a threatening anonymous call that turned out to be a fake.
Swatting is the modern form of the old crank call, only with more dangerous and costly consequences. As the FBI describes it, swatting starts as a hoax call to 9-1-1 to draw a response from law enforcement, usually a SWAT team. The call is perpetrated by tech-savvy individuals, many of whom are teens and twenty-somethings with ties to the online gaming community. They make it appear that the emergency call is coming from the victim's phone.
Today, November 9, newly re-elected Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Union) was one of five legislators who sponsored legislation that was signed into law cracking down on this dangerous trend.
She joined co-sponsors Paul Moriarty (D-Camden/Gloucester), Bob Andrzejczak (Cape May/Atlantic/ Cumberland), Vince Mazzeo (D-Atlantic), and Gabriela Mosquera (D-Camden, Gloucester). The measure was unanimously approved by the full Assembly, 74-0, on June 11, and by the Senate 40-0, on June 26.
The legislation was prompted by a string of recent hoax incidents in New Jersey that have drawn large-scale law enforcement responses. A family’s house in Millville was surrounded by a law enforcement team who believed a violent altercation was taking place inside. Moriarty himself was the target of a swatting incident after news of his efforts to stop the practice became public. Since then, there have been a string of more recent swatting incidents -- including a gaming shop in Clifton, a home in Upper Freehold, and an elementary school in Holmdel, and incidents continue to rise.
“Authorities estimate that the dangerous hoax costs New Jersey law enforcement agencies tens of thousands of dollars every year while diverting resources from other real crimes and putting innocent residents in the crossfire,” said Quijano. This demands a concerted effort to both crack down on this practice and underscore the severity of it so parents can talk to their kids about it and stay on top of their activities.”
The new law upgrades the crime of false public alarm to a crime of the second degree whenever the act:
1) involved a report or warning of an impending bombing, hostage situation, or person armed with a deadly weapon; or
2) involved a report or warning about any critical infrastructure located in this state, defined as “any building, place of assembly, or facility that is indispensably necessary for national security, economic stability, or public safety.”
The bill would also require statewide law enforcement reporting on all incidents of false public alarms.
Under current law, such an act is ordinarily a crime of the third degree, punishable by a term of imprisonment of three to five years, a fine of up to $15,000, or both. Under the new law (A-4375, the crime would be punishable by a term of imprisonment of five to 10 years, a fine of up to $150,000, or both. The responsible party would also be liable, based on existing law, for a civil penalty of $2,000 or the actual costs of responding to the false alarm.