Lawmakers back tougher penalties for fake threats that trigger lockdowns
Mar. 15—A legislative committee gave unanimous support Wednesday to a bill that would make it a felony-level crime to intentionally trigger an armed police response and lockdown of a school, place of assembly, building or public space.
The 11-0 vote of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee came about a week after it heard emotional public testimony from people who endured so-called swatting incidents last fall, when fake reports of active shooters at 10 high schools around the state led to lockdowns, armed responses from police departments and evacuations. No one has yet been arrested or charged in connection to those incidents.
One teacher spoke of the trauma endured as students barricaded doors, armed officers searched the school and she texted messages to her loved ones. Public safety officials talked about how the calls tied up valuable public safety resources and prompted emergency rooms to move out patients to make room for possible gunshot victims. And a student spoke about how she is still haunted by loud sounds in the hallway.
The bill, sponsored Sen. Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth, would make it a felony-level crime to knowingly file a false report that causes an evacuation, lockdown or shutdown of a building, school, public square or park, place of assembly or public transportation facility. Such violations would become a Class C crime punishable by up to five years in jail and a $20,000 fine.
Crimes that can be punishable by more than a year of incarceration are considered felonies, while those punishable by a year or less are considered misdemeanors. Currently, making false reports is a Class D crime punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
Carney said L.D. 405, which faces further votes in the Legislature, stems from a series of false reports of active shooters at 10 high schools on Nov. 15, affecting more than 5,700 students.
Some lawmakers on the committee were concerned that the original bill would apply to young students who pull fire alarms because it included language that would apply to any false reports that cause an emergency response. Carney's amendment limits the penalties to false reports that cause an armed police response and lockdowns.
The incidents last fall are still under investigation and police have refused to release transcripts of the 911 calls or other details. Carney said Wednesday that she's been told that the swatting incidents last fall were generated by adults outside the United States.
The bill was opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The ACLU of Maine said creating another felony crime was "an excessive reaction" to the incidents, while the defense lawyers argued that increasing the penalty would set a had precedent.
"Making a crime like this a felony absent any need to do so would only serve to promote the further felonization of crimes in our Criminal Code," MACDL Treasurer Walter McKee wrote. "Over 30 years, I have seen countless false public alarm or report cases and their sentencings. There is no judge, much less really any prosecutor, who has ever indicated that the punishment that they are allowed to impose cannot meet the crime."