Fire! Fire! Just Kidding.

Posted by Neil Shouse | Aug 16, 2012 | 0 Comments

We've all heard the classic maxim that you can't cry fire in a crowded theater. To be more precise, you can't do it if you know there really is no fire.

The maxim actually comes from Oliver Wendell Holmes, the U.S. Supreme Court justice who wrote the 1919 opinion in Schenck vs the United States. Holmes used the example to show that some forms of speech can be punished in spite of the First Amendment.

False alarms are statements that are both untrue and likely to cause harm. Therefore they don't fall within the umbrella of protected free speech.

California law addresses just such a situation. Found in Penal Code 148.4, causing a false fire alarm is a misdemeanor. It's not only illegal, it can send someone to jail for up to six months (longer if a person gets hurt or killed in the ensuing response).

Presumably there is no legitimate reason why someone would sound a false alarm, other than to create trouble. And false alarms can cause significant social and economic harm, not the least of which is fear and panic among people in the vicinity.

As you might imagine, it is a defense to Penal Code 148.4 if the person entertained a good faith belief that there really was a fire. A person may call 911, for example, thinking she smells smoke…when really it's just a neighbor having burnt some bread.

As a matter of public policy, it's important that honest mistakes be excused, even if the person over-reacts to the perceived signs of a fire. The last thing we would want to do is inhibit people from reporting dangerous situations.

About the Author

Neil Shouse

Southern California DUI Defense attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT).


There are no comments for this post. Be the first and Add your Comment below.

Leave a Comment

Free attorney consultations...

Our attorneys want to hear your side of the story. Contact us 24/7 to schedule a FREE consultation with a criminal defense lawyer. We may be able to get your charges reduced or even dismissed altogether. And if necessary, we will champion your case all the way to trial.

Regain peace of mind...

Our defense attorneys understand that being accused of a crime is one of the most difficult times of your life. Rely on us to zealously and discreetly protect your rights and to fight for the most favorable resolution possible.

Office Locations

Shouse Law Group has multiple locations all across California and Nevada. Click Office Locations to find out which office is right for you.

To contact us, please select your state:

Call us 24/7 (855) 396-0370