We previously discussed the case of Paul Chambers who was arrested for a tweet joking about blowing up an airport after his flight was canceled in England. Now a New Jersey man, Bill Miller, is in a similar situation after he joked to a friend in a text message that his catamaran had capsized. His friend notified the authorities and he is now charged with felony charge of causing a false public alarm — a charge that comes with a potential five year jail sentence.
First, let us be clear. Miller clearly has a juvenile sense of humor. He decided it was really funny to send a friend a message reading “I am flipped over in the middle of the bay…I don’t know what to do??”
Since there is no recognizable humor or wit in such a message, the friend assumed it to be true and called the authorities who proceeded to conduct a full search in the midst of poor weather along the coast, including dangerous lightning with trees and power lines down.
Miller insists that it was obvious he was not in any real danger since he obviously had time to text and had a working phone. That is not very convincing. His friend did the right thing since this could have been the only message that he was able to get out.
The more plausible defense is that a private text is not a basis for a public alarm since he never sent the message for authorities. This crime usually addressed false calls to the police or public acts — not private jokes.
I have great reservations over the use of a criminal charge in such a circumstance — part of the increasing criminalization of our society. One obvious approach would be to take away his boating license or permit and bar him from obtaining another one. He clearly does not have the maturity or sense to operate a water vehicle. Another approach could be to hit Miller with a bill for the rescue in a civil action. I generally do not support the imposition of such costs on hikers and others who trigger rescues in national parks or public areas. However, it seems like this may be a circumstance where such a bill is warranted.
What I do not believe is that the world’s dumbest joke should be the basis for the world’s dumbest charge.