San Francisco passes CAREN Act to criminalize phony 911 calls based on race

Violators will be subject to civil damages of at least $1,000.

October 27, 2020, 8:33 PM

San Francisco leaders voted to crack down on so-called "Karens" who use 911 calls to discriminate against minorities.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed the Caution Against Racially and Exploitative Non-Emergencies, or CAREN, Act on Tuesday, which amends the city's police code and allows anyone harmed by such calls to sue.

The bill, nicknamed for the slang term given to people who make the baseless calls, means violators would be liable in court to general damages of at least $1,000 plus costs and attorney's fees, and punitive damages.

Supervisor Shamann Walton, who introduced the bill in July, said in a statement that the act should make residents think twice before calling the police on their Black or minority neighbors over a non-emergency.

"Rather than calling the police or law enforcement on your neighbor, or someone who you think doesn't look like they should be your neighbor, try talking to them and getting to know them. Let's build relationships in our communities," he said in a statement.

Supervisor Shamann Walton speaks at a news conference about the shooting death of Jace Young in San Francisco, July 7, 2020.
Jeff Chiu/AP

The act expands the city's definition of a protected class "to prevent false emergency calls with the specific intent to discriminate against a person or otherwise infringe the person's rights or cause the person specified harms on the basis of the person's race, color, ancestry, national origin, place of birth, sex, age, religion, creed, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, weight, or height."

Mayor London Breed has said she supports the bill, which would go into law 30 days after it's signed.

The false reports have gained more attention in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and the racial reckoning it prompted in the U.S.

One of the most prominent cases came in May when a woman in New York's Central Park called police on a birdwatcher who had asked her to put her dog on a leash. She claimed an "African American man" was threatening her and "tried to assault her" -- neither of which was true. She is expected to plead guilty to falsely reporting an incident at a court date next month.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed a similar bill into law Tuesday.

The bill, HB 5098, expands the state's definition of hate crimes to include "false 911 calls or reports to law enforcement against another person made on the basis of race, religious conviction, gender, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, color, or national origin."