Most people have prank called at least a few phone numbers in their lifetimes. And realistically, there’s no real harm in asking someone if their refrigerator is running. But when prank phone calls get out of hand and start involving threats, obscenity or repeated calls to the same victim, they become a form of harassment punishable by California Penal Code section 653m (PC).
Is Prank Calling Illegal?
The good news is that most prank calls are completely legal. In order to be illegal under California state law, a prank call or other form of contact through electronic communication (including email, voice messages, Facebook messages or text) must be done with the purposes of harassing or annoying the call recipient and either:
- contain obscene language
- include a threat to the person receiving the call, his family or his property
- be part of a series of annoying phone calls to the same person
The fact that the call must be made with the intent to annoy or harass is important because if someone is legitimately trying to call a sexual partner to engage in phone sex and accidentally dials the wrong number, the receiver of the call might report the situation, but ultimately, the prosecutor should recognize that the phone call lacked the required criminal intent that makes such an offense illegal. Similarly, if someone was jokingly making violent threats to their little sister while on the phone with someone else and didn’t realize they forgot to put their phone on mute, their lawyer might be able to get the district attorney to drop the legal case against them.
It’s also important to note that, even if the annoying phone call took place when the person called you at your request (you left them a message to call you back, for example), you could face charges.
What is Considered “Obscene Language?”
It’s simple enough to understand what is considered a threat or that repeated calls are against the law, but defining what is considered “obscene language” is difficult even for attorneys, police and judges. That being said, California state laws make it clear that this language is not limited to content that is sexual in nature, but even profanities or descriptions of graphic violence can be considered obscene.
But even then, things are not cut and dry. For example, if two people know each other well and regularly use profanity against one another, then it would not be considered obscene if one of them wrote an email containing vulgar language. Also, if a call is made to a customer complaint line for a large business, then the standard may be higher for the use of profanity than a case where someone calls another person’s home using vulgar language -that being said, saying graphic sexual things to a call center representative could still leave you behind bars.
Penalties for Making Harassing Phone Calls
Violations of 653m (PC) are a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and $1,000 in fines. A conviction will also end up on your criminal record, which is not great for anyone, but could be a real problem for juveniles who are just starting out their lives and trying to get into college, secure a good job and find a nice place to live away from their parents.
That being said, many people who face charges for this offense are not simply making a prank call, but are actually stalking or harassing someone purposefully, in many cases, someone who has accused them of domestic abuse. In these cases, if the victim already has a restraining order against the caller, then the caller may also be charged with violating his restraining order. Charges for this offense are typically a misdemeanor and can result in up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
If you have been accused of making annoying or harassing phone calls, please contact Peter M. Liss to discuss your case. Please call (760) 643-4050 to schedule a free initial consultation.