Since telephones were invented, people have been using them to make prank calls. Typically, young people engage in this behavior, though less today since the advent of caller I.D. Unfortunately, not every state has specific laws to prosecute prank callers.
However, in California, when innocent pranks become threatening, are recorded illegally, or interfere with emergency services, the perpetrator can be held criminally liable. According to state law, it is illegal to make prank calls or use any electronic communication device to harass or annoy another person.
When Is Making a Prank Phone Call Illegal in California?
Usually, making a prank phone call is considered illegal if the perpetrator intentionally does the following to the recipient:
Prank phone calls can also be considered against the law if:
- They are vulgar or obscene
- They equal disorderly conduct
- The prank caller makes a recording of the call without the targeted caller’s consent
- The call was placed to an emergency response number like 911
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Does California Have a Prank Phone Call Law?
Some states, including California, have criminal statutes designed to punish perpetrators of prank phone call crimes. For example, California’s prank phone call law is spelled out under Penal Code 653m, a criminal statute that prohibits:
- Threatening injury to the recipient or their family or property
- Using obscene language
- Making multiple calls to harass or annoy the recipient
In addition to telephone calls, the perpetrator can violate the statute by contacting the recipient through an electronic communication device (i.e., messaging or emails via a smart device or computer).
What Are the Penalties for Making Prank Calls in California?
You can be charged with a misdemeanor if you violate California’s P.C. 653m resulting in punishments of:
- A fine of up to $1,000
- Up to six months in county jail
- Misdemeanor probation with a mandatory counseling
States other than California must rely on general criminal laws to prosecute prank callers. Some of the most common laws that are used include those that cover:
- Disorderly conduct
- Domestic violence
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Is It Illegal to Prank Call 911?
Prank calling 911 or other emergency response numbers is more likely to be considered a crime over other prank call types. California, like other states, has statutes on its books to disallow this call type. Depending on the caller’s words when making the call, it could equal falsely reporting an emergency.
For example, “swatting” incidents have risen in popularity over the years. To do this, a caller dials 911 and reports a hostage emergency at their victim’s address. The caller intends to get the SWAT team and other police officers to arrive at the target’s home and begin harassing them.
If the caller is caught and charged, he or she could face:
- Up to a $10,000 fine
- Up to three years in prison
If found guilty, the 911 caller could also be on the hook for emergency response costs.
Additionally, misdemeanor charges can be levied on California prank callers if their call causes or might have resulted in:
- An evacuation
- An Emergency Alert System going off
- An emergency services vehicle, including an ambulance, police car, or fire truck, to respond
Misdemeanor convictions for this type of offense can equal
- Up to $1,000 in fines
- Up to one year in jail
- Both the $1,000 fine and jail time
This misdemeanor could be upgraded to a felony if:
- If the prankster should have reasonably known, the call would likely lead to death or great bodily injury
- The call did cause great bodily injury or death
- The person who made the emergency report knew it to be false
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Is Prank Calling a California Business Illegal?
A lot of states don’t differentiate between making a prank call to a business or prank calling an individual. Therefore, prank-calling a company can lead to criminal liability.
In California, for example, it’s unlawful to make threats or use obscenities when calling a business. Yet, it only protects individuals against repeated calls, not companies. Also, it doesn’t apply to calls initiated during the company’s ordinary course of business.
Despite this, business-targeted prank phone calls can lead to financial liability for any phony orders placed. For instance, one individual orders pizza from a local business and has them sent to another individual. If that second individual refuses to pay, the first individual would likely be on the hook for the entire bill.
Can a Prank Call Be Considered a Hate Crime in California?
If a person’s prank call targets someone because of their protected characteristic or trait, it can equal a hate crime. However, to be convicted of a crime, the call would have to violate California’s prohibition against harassment or prank calls.
Plus, the motive of the call would need to be based on the recipient’s protected class.
For example, one person calls another person several times a day. If they threaten violence and use abusive language because of the recipient’s sexual orientation, this could be considered a hate crime.
Is It Illegal to Record a Prank Call in California?
Many prank phone calls are made for fun or as a joke. Yet, the prankster may record the conversation to spread the joke around, usually without the recipient knowing. In some states, this can equal a wiretapping charge.
Wiretapping is the act of illegally using a recording device to monitor or listen to somebody else’s phone conversation. Specific states make it legal if one party on the phone call consents to the recording. In other states, including California, everyone on the call must agree to the phone call to be deemed legal.
Penal Code 631 lays out California’s wiretapping law and mandates it as a two-party consent state. So, what does this mean for recording prank phone calls? If it’s done without the other party’s consent, you can be charged with wiretapping.
How Is Prank Call Wiretapping Charged?
California’s wiretapping law is considered a wobbler. This means that prosecutors can charge the crime as either a felony or a misdemeanor.
If the prosecution pursues it as a wobbler, a conviction could include:
- Up to $10,000 in fines and restitution
- Up to 16 months, two years, or three years in prison
- Both a fine and prison time
If the wiretapping is pursued as a misdemeanor and you’re convicted, you could face:
- Up to $2,500 in fines and restitution
- Up to one year in county jail
- Both a fine and jail time
Call Simmrin Law Group if You’ve Been Accused of Prank Calls
Annoying telephone calls are illegal in California. However, P.C. 653m also applies to text messages, emails, and other electronic communication.
If you or someone you know is accused of making a harassing call to an individual or a business, wiretapping, or prank calling an emergency service, call an experienced Los Angeles attorney. Contact us at Simmrin Law Group for a free consultation today.
Call or text (310) 896-2723 or complete a Free Case Evaluation form