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Almost every teenager has made a prank call or been involved in one at some point. Such calls are a classic prank that can be incredibly fun when done correctly. However, as with any practical joke, things can always go wrong and result in repercussions that lead to community service, fines, or even jail time.
Whether you are the prank caller or the recipient of a prank call, you may be questioning the legality of such a call.
Today, we will discuss exactly that to give you a better idea of the situation.
Is a Prank Call Illegal?
The short answer is yes and no, depending on the circumstances of the call. The thing is that prank calls fall under a gray area of our legal system. So, prank calling can go either way and be illegal in some situations while completely non-consequential in others.
Each state has different rules, and the consequences and charges against a prank call may change depending on the state’s rules. The key things that make a prank call illegal in any state are the intent and the aftermath of the call.
If your prank call has no malicious intent, lasting repercussions, and is harmless to the call recipient, it is not illegal. But if your prank call intentionally harasses or threatens someone, it is considered illegal.
Whereas, some prank calls are considered a crime in all states, like prank-calling 911, which may lead to serious fines and jail time.
How Do You Gauge If a Prank Call Is Illegal or Not?
The simplest way to gauge the legality of a prank call is to know the limits and how they relate to federal and state laws. Following are some general crimes, statutes, and situations used to judge and prosecute prank calls in the courts.
- Disorderly Conduct
Disorderly conduct includes a wide range of things that may differ from state to state. Generally, in terms of prank calls, it means intentionally annoying someone with calls and the use of abusive and offensive language.
If your prank calls amount to disorderly conduct, they are illegal and punished as a misdemeanor offense. The fines can range anywhere between $25 and $1,000, and there is a possibility of probation or jail time, depending on the severity of your offenses.
- Harassment and Stalking
Intentionally harassing, threatening, or stalking someone with prank calls is also illegal. This happens when you frequently make reckless calls to someone. Sometimes, just the sheer number of calls made to a single recipient can be grounds for harassment or stalking charges, regardless of the contents of the calls.
Other times, prank calling at inconvenient times like late at night or at work may also be considered harassment. Threatening someone, their family, or their property during a prank call can also lead to severe harassment charges.
Harassment and stalking are misdemeanor offenses that may result in the offender doing jail time in county jail. Often, the recipient of such prank calls may file for a restraining order, which means the offender cannot approach them again in any way, indefinitely.
- Hate Crime
If the prank call targets someone because of their racial identity, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender, it can amount to a hate crime. Violations against such protected trait or characteristic is a serious offense.
Such prank calls have to violate the state’s rules on harassment or prank calling and show a motive that involves the recipient’s protected trait. Even obscene and offensive language like using a racial slur in a prank call is grounds for a hate crime.
Hate crime offenses result in severe fines, depending on the state, and up to one year of prison time.
Prank callers who record calls without the recipient’s consent are breaking multiple federal and state wiretapping laws. Wiretapping is illegal in all states, but the laws are slightly different. In states requiring two-party consent means that all the people in the recording must consent to be recorded.
This means that the prank caller and the recipient must both agree to be recorded. In states that require one-party consent, only one person in the recording needs to give their consent, without the need for the other person’s consent or knowledge.
The repercussions for illegal wiretapping may result in fines of around $10,000 and up to five years of prison time, depending on the state.
Liability mainly occurs in the realm of prank-calling businesses. Most states do not distinguish between prank calls to businesses and individuals, which means all the mentioned offenses apply to prank-calling businesses as well.
If someone places a delivery order as a prank, it can lead to liability. For example, if the prankster orders a dozen pizzas and has them delivered to the recipient’s home, where the recipient denies paying for the order, the prankster is held liable.
Some states like California treat prank-calling businesses and individuals the same, with the exclusion of repeated calls. This means that repeated calls to businesses in California are not illegal, but fake orders can lead to liability.
- Prank Calling Emergency Services (Misuse of 911)
Prank calling emergency response numbers is a crime in all states. This includes prank-calling 911, the fire department, ambulance services, rescue services, and even the coastguard. Most often, criminal charges are pressed on even first-time offenders for such prank calls.
This is because such a prank call amount to making a false report of an emergency that leads to the deployment of emergency services. They might dispatch an ambulance, fire truck, police car, evacuate an area, or activate the Emergency Alert System.
Such prank calls result in fines between $1000 to $5000 and up to 5 years of jail time. The criminal charges may also become a felony, depending on the circumstances of the prank call.
While prank calling may seem like a fun, practical joke, it is not without consequence. Someone who does not understand the federal and state laws around prank calls can easily cross the line and turn a prank call into a criminal offense like a misdemeanor, or worse, a felony.
For the most part, prank calls are legal until they are not, which is why it is best to avoid making them. Of course, making harmless prank calls to someone you know will not get offended or take legal action is fine, but you should still never cross the line.
Moreover, if someone prank calls you, the mentioned information should help you understand your rights and the repercussions for the prankster. Always remember to refer to your state laws and consult a professional for legal advice.