‘Karens’ Beware: Calling 911 May Soon Cost You in California (1)

  • Bill would impose fines, jail for discriminatory 911 calls
  • San Francisco’s similar pending law permits civil suits

(Updates with comment from the bill’s author in the ninth paragraph. An earlier version corrected the name of the Asian Law Alliance.)

Calling 911 to knowingly hassle someone for a discriminatory reason would be illegal and could result in up to a $2,000 fine and a one-year jail term under California legislation that won final passage Monday.

The legislation (A.B. 1775) comes amid increasing focus on emergency calls seeking police intervention against people of color for such activities as barbecuing or dancing in the street.

“The members I represent believe deeply that calling 911 simply to stoke racial tensions is not only wrong, but it also impacts and interferes with the dispatchers’ ability to field calls that are meritorious and takes officers from doing actual police work,” Shane Levine of the California Fraternal Order of Police told a Senate Public Safety Committee hearing.

A first violation for knowingly using the emergency system to harass another would carry a $250 fine if deemed an infraction and a $1,000 fine if deemed a misdemeanor and six months in jail. A second and subsequent violation also would carry a $1,000 fine and six months in jail.

If the person knowingly used the 911 system “for the purpose of hassling another person who is part of a protected class, the person who committed the act would be guilty of a misdemeanor and punishable by up to one year in a county jail, a fine of not less than $500 nor more than $2,000 or both imprisonment and fine,” a Senate floor analysis said.

“It’s dangerous, it’s abusive, it’s wrong, and it has to stop,” Assemblymember Reginald Jones-Sawyer (D), who authored the bill, said during the floor vote to concur with Senate amendments.

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

The bill would amend state civil rights law to make clear that “intimidation by threat of violence” includes making or threatening to make a report to a law enforcement agency that falsely alleges that another person is engaged in unlawful activity.

The bill was supported by the Asian Law Alliance, California Chapter National Emergency Number Association, and California State Sheriffs’ Association. It had no known opposition. The Senate unanimously passed the measure on Aug. 27. .

The legislation “addresses the need to deter discriminatory unlawful calls to law enforcement, and the imperative to prevent individuals from using emergency services as their ‘personal concierge’ to harass others,” Jones-Sawyer said, according to a legislative analysis.

San Francisco has a pending ordinance, the Caution Against Racially Exploitive Non Emergency Act that likewise would prohibit discriminatory reports to law enforcement on the basis of the person’s race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity. The ordinance also would permit the victim of such discrimination to sue for up to $1,000 in damages, attorneys’ fees, and punitive damages.

That measure’s formal title was designed to create the acronym CAREN—a reference to the nickname “Karen” that people on social media have been using when sharing stories about white women yelling at or calling the police on people of color.

Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has until Sept. 30 to decide whether to sign the bill.

To contact the reporter on this story: Joyce E. Cutler in San Francisco at jcutler@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tina May at tmay@bloomberglaw.com

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