The “CAREN” We Need?

You have heard the stories from around the nation recently: A woman called the police because she perceived “an African American man” to be threatening her in a NY park. The man was just protesting about the woman’s dog not being leashed. A Filipino man wrote “Black Lives Matter” with chalk on a San Francisco property, with the police being summoned. The property was the man’s own. In Alameda, an individual called the police on a Black man dancing and exercising in the street. After the fact, everyone can agree that such action is not good. But do we need a(nother) law making it legal to sue “Karens”?

Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda) thinks so. He introduced AB-1550 as a way to punish people who call 911 on people for doing innocuous, everyday activities. “We must not allow people to use our 911 and law enforcement systems as weapons for hate,” the Assemblyman stated. AB-1550 is intended to work alongside the CAREN Act (officially, the Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies Act), introduced in and for San Francisco by Supervisor Shamann Walton in an attempt to further criminalize discriminatory emergency calls.

AB-1550 would add the following to the California Civil Code: “A person may bring a civil action in any court of competent jurisdiction against any responsible party who, motivated by the persons’ race, religion, sex, or any other protected status, through the use of a ‘911’ call knowingly causes a peace officer to arrive at a location to contact the person with the intent to do any of the following,” then listing actions including unlawfully discriminating against the person, causing the person to feel harassed, humiliated, or embarrassed, or causing the person to be expelled from a place in which the other person is lawfully located. In other words, the law would make it a hate crime to make fraudulent emergency calls based on the mere perception of another individual to be threatening. Victims of such 911 calls would be allowed to sue for the infliction of emotional distress caused by a police response or receive a statutory award between $250 and $10,000 in addition to legal fees and costs. Oregon and New York both recently enacted laws that will allow a target of an allegedly prejudiced “911” call to file a lawsuit against the caller.

There is, however, already law on the books in California making it a misdemeanor to file a false report of a criminal offence. In pertinent part, California Penal Code § 148.5 states that “[e]very person who reports to any peace officer …, the Attorney General, or a deputy attorney general, or a district attorney, or a deputy district attorney that a felony or misdemeanor has been committed, knowing the report to be false, is guilty of a misdemeanor.” However, it is only the government agency that responded to the call that can pursue charges. Often, the agencies do not do so. Whether or not they should can, of course, be debated, which is outside the scope of this article.

Similarly, there are both advantages and disadvantages of the proposed laws. Some advantages are said to be that since racism still exists, society needs to continually set in to attempt to eradicate it from many angles. The laws further signal to everyone in a proactive manner that “Karen calls” are not acceptable to anyone. Callers cannot and should not use government resources such as calling the police for hate reasons when the real problem is one’s own personal prejudices and unfounded fears. As the district attorney’s offices often do not press charges in these cases, private individuals would be able to do so in similarity with other civil rights provisions.

On the other hand, do we need even more laws on the books or should the problem be solved via other action and not “hard law”? For example, former Governor Brown once famously wrote in a veto message, “Not every human problem deserves a law.”

More importantly, expecting people of color to instigate legal action against nervous callers may be seen as putting more onus on the same groups of people who have already historically if not actually experienced this problem: They would have to relive the trauma of being victimized and do even more hard work of undoing systemic racism. For example, Christian Cooper – the African American birdwatcher in New York who was annoyed at lose dogs scaring away birds – did not want to press charges against the woman calling the authorities on him. In a display of sympathy, he noted that she had already suffered enough by losing her job and her dog.

Evidentiary issues may prove problematic with the proposed laws. For example, the legislative history of AB 1550 uses language such as “racially motivated,” “fraudulent” and “perceptions” of others being threatening. What if the caller truly did feel threatened? The call would then not be actionable, but if the caller was truly fraudulent, that same person would maybe have an equally easy time claiming subjective fear. And who, in this day and age, would ever admit to feeling threatened because of race only and not actual fears? Granted, the “New York Karen” referenced race, but it would be easy in such situation to falsely claim that that was only done to assist law enforcement in finding the person alleged to be threatening.

In the spring of 1992, Rodney King famously stated, “[C]an we all get along?” 32 years later, we are still not quite there yet, but working on it. Perhaps the proposed laws will help reach this objective, perhaps not. Perhaps they will prove a band-aid and not part of the solution. Recent nationwide events have, however, shown that important steps, whatever they may be, still need to be taken in the right direction; against discriminatory, unconstitutional behavior.