States Cracking Down on Terrorism Hoaxes

From Pennsylvania to Hawaii, law enforcement officials are reporting a higher number of calls to their emergency response teams from citizens concerned about suspicious packages or substances. The FBI has responded to more than 2,500 incidents of suspected anthrax nationally, a tenfold increase in the amount of bioterrorism threats usually logged in a year. While the bulk of these calls are from concerned citizens, some can be traced to those perpetrating a fraud.

Perpetrators of these crimes can be prosecuted under federal laws dealing with mail tampering. However, many state legislatures are being urged to enact stiffer penalties for prosecuting these people.

New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen recently unveiled proposed legislation to update New Hampshire's biological and chemical terrorism laws. "The new law, if approved by the Legislature, will send a clear message that we will not tolerate biological or chemical threats or hoaxes" Shaheen said in a press release.

The proposed new law would make it a Class B felony, which carries a prison sentence of 3 1/2 years to 7 years, to falsely report a biological or chemical threat or to commit a hoax related to chemical or biological weapons.

Michigan is another state that has been plagued by hoaxes. A General Motors plant was shut down on Oct. 15 when three employees allegedly placed baby powder in an envelope with Arabic characters on it, the Detroit News reported.

Under an anti-terrorism package introduced in the Michigan legislature, a person convicted of making a false biological terrorist threat would face up to five years in prison and a fine up to $10,000.

"At a time when the public is more than a little anxious about the possibilities of [biological threats]... we hope to put the public at ease at least in terms of knowing that we have laws in place," said Michigan State Senator William Van Regenmorter, sponsor of the anti-terrorism Senate Bills 497, 498, and 675. His bills have passed the legislature and two of them have already been signed into law by Michigan Gov. John Engler

Van Regenmorter said he hopes the new legislation will "warn those who contemplate placing these imitation harmful substances that this will not be viewed as a joke, but a serious crime, in fact a felony. With a prison sentence and a significant fine awaiting them if they are convicted."

His proposal would stiffen existing statues by creating a new crime; the intent to cause someone to falsely believe a chemical, biological, or radioactive threat. The penalties for this new crime are substantial, carrying a 5 year felony jail term, a fine, and restitution for the full cost of the emergency services provided.

Connecticut lawmakers are also drafting new legislation that would make creating a situation that threatens public health or safety a serious felony. According to Chief States Attorney John Bailey, who oversees prosecution, existing state laws only apply to telephone threats.

"People are not calling (in threats) they are just leaving envelopes by buildings," Bailey told He said the new legislation will expand existing law to cover new types of threats and be broad enough to include situations from bomb scares to public health frauds.

Officials in other states such as North Carolina, Mississippi, and Massachusetts have also begun drafting or enacting legislation. Although no cost estimates have been released, many states expect great revenue loss because of hoaxes.

Michigan State Sen. Van Regenmorter also points out some indirect costs. "Often these kinds of alarms are responded to with some speed and that imposes some danger not just on the responder but to the citizens as well... oftentimes (the buildings) are evacuated with great haste and that can lead to injuries" he says.

In Tennessee, outrage over hoaxes has prompted Gov. Don Sundquist to authorize a reward of $10,000 to information leading to the capture of pseudo-terrorists. In Louisiana, Gov. Mike Foster has directed police and prosecutors to seek the same punishment for those who perpetrate hoaxes that actual terrorists would face.


Related Stories