House bill would increase penalties for ‘swatting’

      The House has voted to increase the penalties for deliberately reporting someone to law enforcement with the intent or hurting, embarrassing, or intimidating them; a practice commonly referred to as “swatting.”

Representative Lane Roberts (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Under House Bill 1704 a person would be guilty of making a false report if they intentionally make, or causes to be made to any enforcement organization, a false report that could cause bodily harm as a result of the emergency response. 

      “The bill hinges on the statement that it is with reckless disregard of causing bodily harm to any person as a direct result of an emergency response,” said bill sponsor Lane Roberts (R-Joplin)“It’s an effort to keep people from weaponizing the public safety system to harm other people; sometimes physically, sometimes by reputation or intimidation.”

      “This also deals with the use of the system to humiliate, embarrass, or have people forcibly removed from premises, and this is often aimed at minorities, aimed at religious differences, sexual orientation … recent news has been replete with that kind of conduct,” said Roberts.  “This bill prohibits that kind of use of public safety to harm others, to harm their reputation, to harm them physically, or otherwise damage an individual.”

      Those who make false reports that result in a person being killed or seriously hurt could be charged with a class-B felony, punishable by 5 to 15 years in prison.  Otherwise, false reports of a felony crime would be a class-C felony (up to 7 years in prison) and false reports of a misdemeanor would be a class-B misdemeanor (up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000). 

      Roberts and other legislators have discussed in recent years how incidents of “swatting” seem to have increased, and in some cases those have resulted in deaths and serious injuries.  Roberts’ legislation is the latest attempt to address that.

      “Somebody will call in a false report that generates a response from a police agency, sometimes a SWAT team, which by its very nature, puts people at risk of injury or death, both the police officer and folks inside.”

      His proposal was sent to the Senate with unanimous bipartisan support, 142-0.  Democrats contributed to the language of HB 1704, and Representative Ashley Bland Manlove (D-Kansas City) spoke in support of it.  She said she remembers a recent “swatting” incident that happened just across the state line from her district, in Kansas.

      “Somebody he was on [a] video game with in California was apparently mad that they had lost the game and used an app to deploy SWAT to the man in Overland Park’s house saying, ‘He’s got somebody in the house and they’ve got hostages,’ so SWAT comes in hot immediately.  Unfortunately the young man was a black man,” said Bland Manlove.  “I’ve also heard of this being used, as [Representative Roberts] said, in domestic disputes.  Somebody’s mad that they don’t have the kids or they have to pay child support so then they constantly use the police, filing false reports against the other partner.”

The bill was also the product of bipartisan cooperation, with the inclusion of changes authored by Representative Robert Sauls (D-Kansas City).

      In addition to possible incarceration and fines, violations of the language of HB 1704 could result in civil penalties.   

      “Any person who makes a false report in violation of this section for the purpose of infringing on another person’s rights under the Missouri or the United States Constitution; unlawfully discriminating against another person; causing another person to be expelled from a place in which such person is lawfully located; damaging another person’s reputation or standing within the community, financial, economic, consumer or business partner interests may be required to pay punitive damages to the victim, so it addresses some of the more malicious forms of use of swatting,” said Roberts.

      HB 1704 was sent to the Senate with two full weeks remaining in the legislative session.

House votes to protect Task Force 1 members’ jobs

      When Missouri Task Force 1 was deployed to Louisiana last August in response to Hurricane Ida and in December after tornadoes hit Kentucky team members knew that when they came home they would be able to return to their jobs.  When they were deployed to Joplin after an EF-5 tornado devastated that community, they couldn’t be as certain.  The Missouri House has voted to change that.

Representative Cheri Toalson Reisch (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      When Task Force 1 is deployed out-of-state its members are protected by the federal Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA).  Deployments in-state aren’t covered by such a law.  House Bill 2193 would change Missouri law to mirror USERRA.  This would mean the Task Force’s more than 200 volunteers’ jobs would be protected no matter where they go.

      “It just makes their employment rights the same if they’re deployed within the State of Missouri or outside the State of Missouri,” said bill sponsor Cheri Toalson Reisch (R-Hallsville).

      “They have those rights currently in federal law but not in state law,” Boone County Fire District Chief Scott Olsen, who heads up Task Force 1, told the House Committee on Public Safety.  “When we deploy to state disasters we are deployed as a state asset, not as a federal asset.  You cannot deploy as a federal asset in your own state, so we would like to have the same USERRA protections … that our members receive for federal deployments.”

      Last year Toalson Reisch filed a similar proposal that stalled in the Senate after clearing the House 153-0.  This year’s proposal has similar broad support.  Kansas City Democrat Ashley Bland Manlove said in support of HB 2193, “Me being in the National Guard, I heard about guys – and I know this is Task Force 1 but this will make them like the National Guard to where you can’t get fired for a deployment, basically.  That is a thing that has happened.”

      The House voted 150-0 to send HB 2193 to the Senate. 

      Task Force 1 is one of 28 search and rescue teams of its kind and is the only one in Missouri.  Its volunteers come from throughout Missouri.