People--especially children and teenagers--have been making "prank calls" since telephones were invented. But in this day and age, parents need to wonder whether their children are exposing themselves to criminal liability with this game.
In fact, "annoying telephone calls" is a crime in California. Under Penal Code 653m PC, you can be charged with a misdemeanor for placing an annoying phone call. And this law applies not just to telephone pranks--it also applies to emails and text messages that meet the legal definition of an "annoying communication."
Luckily, though, the legal definition of an "annoying communication" is not as broad as it sounds. You (or your child) can violate California's "annoying communications" law only by placing a phone call, or sending a text or email, that either:
- Uses "obscene" language;
- Involves a threat to the recipient, or to his/her family or property; or
- Is one of a series of repeated communications.
So, in other words, if your child calls the neighbors once to ask if their refrigerator is running, s/he is not committing a crime.
But if s/he makes a call (or sends a text or email) to a classmate that contains physical threats or sexually explicit language--or if s/he calls the neighbors every day to ask if their refrigerator is running--then criminal liability under PC 653m does become a concern.