Although prank phone calls are considered practical jokes, our laws do provide penalties were they violate the law. Prank calls classified as harassing, obscene, disorderly comduct or an invasion of privacy may be addressed in criminal or civil court through a lawsuit or pressing criminal charges.
A prank phone call is a practical joke delivered by telephone in which the prankster assumes a false identify and often attempts to trick the call’s recipient into saying foolish or embarrassing things. Recordings of humorous prank calls are sometimes circulated on tape or on the Internet. There are a number of laws that restrict this practice.
Many states and cities have laws prohibiting certain types of verbal harassment. According to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a harassing phone call is usually defined as one in which the recipient is made to feel threatened or intimidated. For example, Oregon state law describes a harassing phone call as one in which the recipient is annoyed or harassed for no communicative purpose. If the victim of a prank call feels intimidated or annoyed, he may, depending on local law, file a complaint for harassment.
If the prank call incorporates obscenity, then the caller may be charged under ordinances that bar obscene phone calls. For example, under California’s penal code, obscene or threatening phone calls are considered a misdemeanor and are punishable by up to one year in jail, according to attorney Arnold Hernandez.
If deemed a menace to the public good or a disruption to the order of a city or state, prank callers can also be charged with disorderly conduct. Definitions of disorderly conduct vary. For example, in Minnesota, the definition of disorderly conduct includes "offensive, obscene, or abusive language tending reasonably to arouse alarm, anger, or resentment in others" -- which could include some types of prank phone calls. In addition, whether a prank call is considered disorderly conduct depends on the interpretation of the judge and the police. Those convicted of disorderly conduct generally must pay a fine.
If a prank caller chooses to record her call, she may be guilty of wiretapping. Wiretapping laws vary from state to state. Most states have “one-party” wiretapping laws, in which a call can be taped if one of the two parties in a two-party call consent to the taping. However, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, both parties must consent in 12 states: California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Washington.
Invasion of Privacy
Invasion of privacy is defined as "the intrusion into the personal life of another, without just cause," according to legal services company U.S. Legal Inc. While invasion of privacy is not a criminal offense, damages for those convicted in civil court can be substantial. If the prank caller chooses to distribute the tape, the victim of the call may be able to file a civil suit charging that his privacy has been invaded.
Occasionally, prank callers will attempt to sell recordings of their calls for money. According to Prank Call Central, if prank callers fail to secure a legal release from the recipients of their calls, they may be sued for “likeness rights,” in which a person’s likeness, which includes the person's voice, is used to make money without the person's consent.