As the United States Supreme Court explained in 1919, the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech. But that doesn't mean you can falsely cry 'fire' in a crowded theater.1
Penal Code 148.3 PC is the California law making it a crime to issue a false report of an emergency. This section states that "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."
Penal Code 148.3 (c) defines an "emergency" as any condition that might (or does) trigger:
- the response of an emergency vehicle, aircraft or vessel
- the evacuation of any area, building, structure, vehicle, or of any other place, OR
- an Amber alert2
Penalties for False Report of an Emergency
Normally, a violation of Penal Code 148.3 is a misdemeanor in California. As such, the maximum sentence if one year in county jail. But the judge has the discretion to grant probation with little or no jail time.
But if the false alarm results in someone suffering great bodily injury or death, then the offense becomes a felony in California law. As such, the judge can sentence the defendant to up to 3 years of California State Prison.
Note that if you trigger a fire alarm or make a false report of a fire, you could be charged with a separate offense under Penal Code 148.4 (false report of a fire).
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If you've been charged with making a false report of an emergency, don't despair. Innocent people get charged with this all the time.
You may have had a good faith belief that there was a genuine emergency. Or it may have been someone else who made the false alarm and you got blamed.
2 A report triggering an Amber Alert 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.