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DA sees hope in ‘swatting’ bill

District Attorney Dan Hotsenpiller sees important clarity in a newly passed bill designed to discourage false reporting of imminent public safety threats. He also hopes that clarity can be extended to toughen penalties for making threats against schools.

The Colorado District Attorneys Council backed Senate Bill 68, which criminalizes making false reports of imminent threats to safety involving a deadly weapon. The bill addresses so-called “swatting,” the triggering of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) or similar responses by public agencies when no threat actually exists.

“We have not seen that in the 7th Judicial District,” Hotsenpiller said. “We have seen it in our neighbor to the north, the 21st Judicial District. The bill makes it really clear that reporting a false, fake emergency causing all kinds of response from first responders who place themselves at risk every time they get a call, that is a… crime.”

False reporting of an emergency can be charged as class-4 felony if the emergency response results in the serious bodily injury of another person, or as a class-3 felony if the response results in death.

The offense is otherwise a class-1 misdemeanor and is defined as an extraordinary risk crime. Those convicted are on the hook for the costs associated with the emergency response.

Hotsenpiller said he wants to build on the new bill to address growing threats made involving schools. Multiple school-related threats have been reported in the 7th Judicial District since last year, many in the wake of mass shootings at a Florida high school.

“I am hoping to expand that bill to address school threats and threats of violence at our schools. We still face a challenge with our current laws,” the DA said.

When someone makes a threat of violence involving a school, such as threatening to perpetrate a shooting, he or she can be charged with interference of an educational institution. Bomb threats can result in a charge of false reporting of explosives.

But there is a catch, one Hotsenpiller finds “silly.”

The interference statute “is limited to threats that are made on school grounds. It’s kind of a nonsensical limitation,” he said.

“What we’re seeing is threats of violence at schools are happening on social media, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter. The person making those threats is not necessarily on school grounds. The law is limited in that circumstance.”

Hotsenpiller pointed to a scare last November, in which a teen using Snapchat allegedly threatened to set off explosives at Telluride High School. The threats caused a massive law enforcement response as well as a precautionary closure of schools the next day. But, Hotsenpiller said, they were made on a Sunday, and off campus.

And when it comes to the false reporting of explosives, there is an odd distinction: It applies if the individual says he or she has placed an explosive, but not if he or she says “I am going to” place a bomb, Hotsenpiller said.

“That is a nonsensical distinction,” he said.

“I had hoped that we could address those issues, bootstrap that onto this false reporting of an emergency bill.”

Backers were not able to get the necessary amendments prepared in time, he said, but efforts could resume next legislative session.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is an award-winning journalist and the senior writer for the Montrose Daily Press. Follow her on Twitter @kathMDP.

Montrose Daily Press | June 2, 2018
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2018-06-11T15:36:26+00:00