Under California Penal Code § 148.3 PC, it is a crime to make a false report of an emergency when doing so results in the response of an emergency vehicle, an AMBER Alert, or the evacuation of any area.
Most violations of this law are misdemeanor offenses punishable by up to one year in county jail.
The language of the code section reads:
148.3. (a) Any individual who reports, or causes any report to be made, to any city, county, city and county, or state department, district, agency, division, commission, or board, that an “emergency” exists, knowing that the report is false, is guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction thereof shall be punishable by imprisonment in a county jail for a period not exceeding one year, or by a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both that imprisonment and fine.
(b) Any individual who reports, or causes any report to be made, to any city, county, city and county, or state department, district, agency, division, commission, or board, that an “emergency” exists, who knows that the report is false, and who knows or should know that the response to the report is likely to cause death or great bodily injury, and great bodily injury or death is sustained by any person as a result of the false report, is guilty of a felony and upon conviction thereof shall be punishable by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170, or by a fine of not more than ten thousand dollars ($10,000), or by both that imprisonment and fine.
- calling a police officer and reporting an incident of domestic violence as “payback” to a spouse.
- swatting, or making prank phone calls to emergency response services.
- screaming “dog attack” in a neighborhood when no dogs are around.
You can raise a legal defense to challenge allegations of violating California Penal Code Section 148.3.
Common defenses include:
- mistake of fact,
- you showing that there was an actual emergency, and/or
- you showing that there was no report of an “emergency.”
The crime is punishable by:
- custody in county jail for up to one year, and/or
- a maximum fine of one-thousand dollars.
A judge may award you with misdemeanor (or summary) probation in lieu of jail time.
Our California criminal defense attorneys will highlight the following in this article:
- 1. When is making a false report of an emergency a crime?
- 2. Are there legal defenses?
- 3. What are the penalties for violating PC 148.3?
- 4. Can I get a conviction expunged?
- 5. Are there similar offenses?
1. When is making a false report of an emergency a crime?
It is a crime, per PC 148.3, to intentionally make any false report of an emergency.1
California law defines “emergency” as any condition that might, or does, trigger:
- the response of an emergency vehicle (for example, a fire department truck), aircraft, or vessel,
- the evacuation of any area, building, structure, vehicle, or of any other place,
- the activation of the Emergency Alert System, or
- an AMBER alert.2
The code section reads:
(c) “Emergency” as used in this section means any condition that results in, or could result in, the response of a public official in an authorized emergency vehicle, aircraft, or vessel, any condition that jeopardizes or could jeopardize public safety and results in, or could result in, the evacuation of any area, building, structure, vehicle, or of any other place that any individual may enter, or any situation that results in or could result in activation of the Emergency Alert System pursuant to Section 8594 of the Government Code. An activation or possible activation of the Emergency Alert System pursuant to Section 8594 of the Government Code shall not constitute an “emergency” for purposes of this section if it occurs as the result of a report made or caused to be made by a parent, guardian, or lawful custodian of a child that is based on a good faith belief that the child is missing.
2. Are there legal defenses?
Defense lawyers can use several legal strategies to contest false emergency charges. These include showing that:
- there was a mistake of fact.
- there was a real emergency.
- you made a report, but it was not about an emergency.
2.1. Mistake of fact
In a mistake of fact defense, you assert that you did not have the intent to commit a crime because you misunderstood a particular fact. In the context of this statute, you could assert that your understanding of the facts led to a good faith belief that an emergency was occurring. If this belief was reasonable, then the defense works even though a true emergency did not exist.
2.2. Actual emergency
These laws only prohibit the report of a false or fake emergency. This means you are free to report real emergencies as they occur. You can try to establish that your report was on an actual emergency.
2.3. No report of an “emergency”
Recall that “emergency” has a technical definition under California law. Therefore, you could assert that while you made a report to law enforcement, it was not an emergency. Perhaps, for example, you made a report on recent criminal activity in a neighborhood.
3. What are the penalties for violating PC 148.3?
PC 148.3 sets forth the crime of making a false report of an emergency. A conviction thereof is a misdemeanor.
The crime is punishable by:
- a maximum of one year in county jail time, and/or
- a maximum fine of $1,000.3
In addition, a conviction means you would have to reimburse the applicable public agency for any expenses related to the emergency response.4
Note that if the false alarm results in someone suffering great bodily injury or death, then the district attorney can charge the offense as a felony. As such, the judge can sentence you to up to three years in California State Prison.5
4. Can I get a conviction expunged?
You can get a misdemeanor conviction expunged. This is provided that you successfully complete:
- any jail time imposed, or
- probation (if awarded).
A felony conviction, though, cannot get expunged. This is because expungement is not allowed if an offense results in a prison sentence.
5. Are there similar offenses?
There are three crimes related to making false emergency reports. These are:
- making a false report of a fire – PC 148.4,
- making a false report of a crime – PC 148.5, and
- making a false identification to a peace officer PC 148.9.
5.1. False report of a fire – PC 148.4
Penal Code 148.4 PC is the California law making it a crime to make false reports of a fire.
Specifically, this section prohibits:
- tampering with or breaking fire alarms or fire protection equipment (such as extinguishers),
- triggering a false fire alarm, or
- making a false report of a fire.6
While PC 148.3 applies to all emergencies, this statute is limited to only false fires.
5.2. False report of a crime – PC 148.5
Penal Code 148.5 PC is the California statute that makes it illegal to make a false police report of a crime. This is only a crime if you know the report is false.
Unlike with the false report of an emergency, there has to be an allegation of a false criminal act for a conviction under this law.
5.3. False identification to a peace officer – PC 148.9
Penal Code 148.9 PC is the California statute that makes it a crime knowingly to provide false identification to a police officer.
Note that if you make a false report of an emergency to a police officer, and provide a fake name, then you can be charged under both:
- Penal Code 148.3, and
- Penal Code 148.9.
- California Penal Code 148.3 PC. This statute was cited in People v. Mauch (Court of Appeal of California, Fourth Appellate District, Division Three, 2008) 163 Cal. App. 4th 669; People v. Bechler (Court of Appeal of California, First Appellate District, Division Five, 1998) 61 Cal. App. 4th 373.
- California Penal Code 148.3c PC.
- California Penal Code 148.3a PC.
- California Penal Code 148.3e PC.
- California Penal Code 148.3b PC.
- California Penal Code 148.4 PC.