Many high school and college students are taught that the First Amendment guarantee of free speech does not extend to words that cause public panic such as screaming “FIRE” in a crowded theatre. Raising a false fire alarm can be socially and economically devastating. In a hurried rush to evacuate the theatre, some people can be seriously hurt or killed while being trampled. First responders will have to commit people and resources to come out to the emergency call. Even worse, fire departments that are present at the false alarm would be unable to respond if a real emergency occurred elsewhere. Due to all of these potential hazards, the Michigan Legislature has criminalized anyone making a false fire alarm punishable with fines, probation and even jail time.
Pursuant to MCL 750.240, “[a]ny person who knowingly and willfully commits one or more of the following actions is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment for not more than 1 year and a fine of not more than $1,000.00:”
- “(a) Raise a false alarm of fire at any gathering or in any public place.”
- “(b) Ring any bell or operate any mechanical apparatus, electrical apparatus or combination thereof, for the purpose of creating a false alarm of fire.”
- “(c) Raise a false alarm of fire orally, by telephone or in person.”
In addition to the potential fines and jail time, the court can order the offender to pay restitution to the local fire department that responded to the false alarm in reimbursement of personnel and equipment responding to the scene.
The state statute provides a criminal penalty for intentional false fire alarms. However, many cities, villages and townships have enacted ordinances that provide civil and criminal penalties for negligent or reckless acts that lead to false alarms. These ordinances usually cover fire alarms that are raised through mechanical failure, malfunctioning equipment, errors in installation, maintenance failures, or mistake by the alarm user. The types of penalties depending on the jurisdiction and the number of false fire alarms within a 12-month period. The following are examples of some of the false alarm ordinances by Michigan’s local governments:
City of Ann Arbor, Michigan
- “False alarm means the activation of an alarm system through mechanical failure, faulty equipment, malfunction, improper installation, lack of prudent maintenance, triggering by an animal, testing without prior written notice to the city, or the negligence of the alarm user (or of his, her, or its employees, agents, guests, residents, or invitees). The activation of an alarm system is a false alarm when a Police Department investigation reveals no evidence of criminal activity or attempted criminal activity when the alarm system was activated or when a Fire Department investigation reveals no fire or potential fire, or need for medical attention when the alarm system was activated.” Ordinance 7:401.
- “Whenever the Fire Department or the Police Department responds to a false alarm, the person whose property is served by the alarm system shall pay a false alarm response fee in an amount established by resolution of City Council. Each occurrence shall be considered a separate offense chargeable to the alarm user.” Ordinance 7:405. (NOTE: Ann Arbor charges a false alarm fee for each occurrence, including the FIRST occurrence).
City of Lansing, Michigan
- “False alarm means the activation of an alarm system through mechanical failure, malfunction, improper installation, negligence or any other activation of the alarm system other than an activation caused by an attempted or actual break-in, burglary, robbery or a fire. However, a false alarm does not include an alarm activation caused by a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, downed telephone lines or other violent condition beyond the control of the owner or lessee of an alarm system or of his or her employee or agent.” Ordinance 804.01.
- “A Police or Fire Department response to two false alarms at the same site within a 12-month period shall be without any fee assessment. Any premises or site that generates three or more false alarms during a 12-month period is a problem alarm site and a fee, as determined by City Council resolution, that reimburses the City for its cost in responding to the false alarm shall be assessed. Additional false alarms at a problem alarm site within a period of 12 months from the date of the first false alarm shall be assessed fees at an increased amount pursuant to the fee schedule established by City Council resolution.” Ordinance 804.07(a).
City of Sterling Heights, Michigan
- “False alarm – The activation of an alarm system causing a sound or visual signal through mechanical failure, faulty equipment, malfunction, improper installations, and/or lack of prudent maintenance, or the negligence of the alarm user or of his, her, or its employees, agents, guests, residents, or invitees. False alarms that are intentionally activated shall not constitute a false alarm for purposes of this chapter, but may be prosecuted as criminal offenses. An alarm triggered by an animal shall constitute a false alarm.” Ordinance 36-2(v).
- First false fire alarm within 12-month period: Warning but no fine or fees. Ordinance 36-4(A)(i).
- Second, third or fourth false fire alarm within 12-month period: “Assessment of a portion or all of the cost of fire response, as established by the annual appropriations ordinance.” Ordinance 36-4(A)(iii).
- Fifth or subsequence false fire alarm within 12-month period: “Misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500.00, up to 90 days in jail, or both, and mandatory restitution to the City for the cost of police response and/or the cost of fire response.” Ordinance 36-4(A)(v).
City of Taylor, Michigan
- “False alarm means the activation of an alarm system through mechanical or electronic failure, malfunction, improper installation, or as result of the negligence, misuse or misconduct of an alarm user or its employees, agents or persons under its control. The term “false alarm” shall not include alarms caused by severe weather, natural or man made disaster, power or telephone service outages, alarm testing for which prior notification of the police and fire departments had been made, the malicious acts of a person or persons not the employee or agent or under the control of the alarm user, or alarms for which the police and/or fire departments have not initiated any response.” Ordinance 18-40(a)(6).
- “For the third false alarm and for each subsequent false alarm occurring within a single calendar year with regard to the same premises or property, the alarm user shall be assessed a service fee. The service fee shall be in such amount as shall be from time to time established by resolution of the City Council.” Ordinance 18-40(e).
- The City of Taylor will not charge for the first two false alarms, but will charge a service fee of $100.00 for the third call, $200.00 for the fourth call, $300.00 for the fifth call, $5400.00 for the sixth and seventh calls, $500.00 for the eighth and ninth call, $600.00 for the tenth call, and $700.00 for each additional call in the same calendar year.
False fire alarm violations are serious and you can expect that municipal officials, prosecutors and judges will take a hard stance against them. A skilled criminal defense lawyer can negotiate a resolution with the prosecuting attorney to reduce the offense to a civil infraction or possibly secure an outright dismissal. Remember, a misdemeanor conviction can follow you around for the rest of your life and may have to be listed on every job application that you apply for. It pays to get good legal representation in your corner in the very beginning to increase your chances for a favorable outcome to you. If you or a loved one is charged with false fire alarm or any other crime and need legal representation, then do not hesitate to contact the experienced attorneys at Kershaw, Vititoe & Jedinak PLC for assistance today.