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California bill would punish pranksters for celebrity "swatting"

By Sharon Bernstein

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Pranksters who make fake emergency calls drawing police to the homes of celebrities and other targets would face increased penalties under a bill that moved forward in the California legislature on Tuesday.

Swatting - so named because the point is to get heavily armed SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams sent out unnecessarily - is particularly troublesome in Southern California, where many celebrities live.

Advancement of the bill coincides with a rash of swatting incidents in recent weeks that have targeted a handful of celebrities including singer Rihanna and music mogul Sean "Diddy" Combs.

Last month, a 12-year-old boy admitted in court that he had phoned the 911 emergency system to falsely report that criminals with guns and explosives had invaded the home of pop star Justin Bieber. He also admitted to sending police to the home of actor Ashton Kutcher.

When police receive such calls, they have no choice but to respond, even if they suspect the calls are fake, just in case a crime is really in progress, according to Los Angeles Police Department spokesman Richard French.

"We consider these dangerous and serious calls," French said. "We have to take them seriously."

Police - guns at the ready and adrenaline pumping - are dispatched to the unsuspecting celebrity's home, risking violence and terrifying residents and neighbors, French said.

The response is costly, at up to $10,000 per call, French said. If a homeowner or private security guard doesn't realize that the armed personnel are from the police and tries to shoot at them, the results could be deadly, he said.

California state Senator Ted Lieu, whose district includes Beverly Hills, Pacific Palisades and other wealthy areas, is behind the anti-swatting measure currently making its way through the legislature.

His bill, which was approved on Tuesday by the Senate's Public Safety Committee, would make pranksters - or their parents - liable for the cost of sending police on fake calls.

The measure will go next to the Senate Appropriations Committee, and if it passes will likely be presented to the full Senate in May, Lieu said. If passed, it would still need to be approved by the state Assembly before going to Democratic Governor Jerry Brown for his signature, Lieu said.

"This is not the same as calling a pizza delivery place and having them send 10 boxes of pizza to the neighbor down the street who you don't like," Lieu said. "No one is going to get injured or possibly die from that. But these pranks are causing police to send a large armed response to a person's home who has no idea what's going on."

Provisions that would have mandated jail time for the calls and made it easier to charge hoaxers with a felony were removed from the bill, Lieu said. Existing law provides for up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine, at a court's discretion.

(Reporting By Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Steve Orlofsky)

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