PORTSMOUTH, Va. (Sept. 24, 2008)—A U.S. district judge sentenced a Newport, N.C., man 60 months probation Tuesday, Sept. 16, and the court imposed restitution in the amount of $45,292.78 for a false distress call that resulted in search and rescue efforts from multiple agencies.
On Sept. 20, 2007, Joe D. Mills, Jr., used a handheld VHF radio from his front yard to fraudulently report a vessel taking on water to Coast Guard Sector North Carolina. The distress call was recorded and specifically referenced the Coast Guard. Coast Guard watchstanders could not reach Mills after he made the call and $45,000 worth of Coast Guard resources were used searching for him. Local fire and rescue also spent significant resources.
An investigation was launched after the vessel was not found and Coast Guard Investigative Services personnel determined the distress call was a hoax.
The Studds Act was passed in November 1990. This act states that a false distress call is a class D Felony, and a convicted hoax caller is subject to a fine of up to $250,000 and up to six years in prison. The caller might also have to reimburse the Coast Guard for the cost of the search. The caller is also subject to an FCC civil fine of up to $8,000.
If a hoax caller is not caught the taxpayers pay the cost of the search. Coast Guard C-130 aircraft cost about $4,244 an hour to operate, Coast Guard helicopters cost about $4,400 an hour, Coast Guard cutters cost about $1,550 an hour to operate and Coast Guard small boats also cost between $300 to $400 an hour to run.
Hoax calls are not unheard of in So. Maryland. Taxpayers in St. Mary's County will foot the bill for a hoax suicide call placed by two Great Mills High School students on Wednesday, Sept. 3. One of the teens called the Walden Sierra Suicide Hotline and told staffers that he was with a friend who had a gun to his head and wanted to commit suicide. The caller said that they were currently behind Leonardtown High School in the woods.
The entire Leonardtown school complex was subsequently locked down for approximately two hours as the Sheriff's Office and Maryland State Police troopers, assisted by helicopter support, searched for the non-existent would-be suicide victim. Police have not released the estimated cost incurred by taxpayers for authorities to respond to the hoax.