Ask the Lawyer: Is a prank call illegal?
Q: College kids, all 18 or a bit older, decided to prank call people. The gist of the calls is to unnerve whomever answers, make them think there are ghosts haunting their house, and that they are a company who can help rid them of these “demons.” An older gentleman reported these kids to the police. Is what they did a crime?
– M.A., Manhattan Beach
A: It was a prank – just harmless fun right? Well, under the California Penal Code, certain kinds of “pranks” can rise to the level of a misdemeanor, result in a fine of up to $1,000, and as much as six months in county jail.
Section 653m prohibits two specific kinds of conduct: (1) Calls made with the intent to annoy in which obscene language is used, or there is a threat made to inflict injury to the person, his or her property, or to any member of his or her family. If that criteria does not apply, then (2) Calls made with an intent to annoy or harass, which are repeated calls. In the situation you describe, just what did the kids say, how many times did they call that gentleman, and what was their intent?
Q: I have a dispute with someone over money. She is texting me several times now, and has made threats of harm if I don’t pay her. There are four letter words used. Is this behavior legal?
A: Her behavior may constitute a violation of Penal Code Section 653m because it is a “communication”, and employs a threat. Subsection (b) of Penal Code Section 653m expressly provides: “Every person who, with intent to annoy or harass, makes… repeated contact by means of an electronic communication device… to another person is, whether or not conversation ensues… guilty of a misdemeanor.” Her texting by an electronic communication device (ie, the cell phone) is a covered act.
Q: A contractor did work for us. We have held back some money because the work done is inadequate. He called me, and now his assistant called me, indicating they want the final payment or will the lien the house. I also just got a letter in the mail. Is this illegal harassment?
-D.F., Rancho Palos Verdes
A: The contractor may have a legal right to record a lien. Also, if he, his assistant and the letter you received are basically professional, and there are no threats of bodily harm and injury, those communications may not be improper. You do not say what times they called, or how often. There is, however, a basic right to make demand for payment. Also, there is a proviso at the end of Penal Code Section 653m which reads: “Nothing in this subdivision shall apply to telephone calls or electronic contacts made in good faith or during the ordinary course and scope of business.”
Ron Sokol is a Manhattan Beach attorney with more than 35 years of experience. His column, which appears on Wednesdays, presents a summary of the law and should not be construed as legal advice. Email questions and comments to him at RonSEsq@aol.com or write to him at Ask the Lawyer, Daily Breeze, 21250 Hawthorne Blvd., Suite 170, Torrance, CA 90503.