Swatting case poses legal challenges for police, prosecutors

The 911 call was fake, authorities said, but the bullet was very real.Investigators and prosecutors in Kansas ...

Posted: Jan 1, 2018 4:57 PM
Updated: Jan 1, 2018 4:57 PM

The 911 call was fake, authorities said, but the bullet was very real.

Investigators and prosecutors in Kansas and California, and with the federal government are trying to untangle the strands of a swatting case that ended with a police officer fatally shooting a 28-year-old father of two standing in his front door.

Swatting is usually done by computer hackers, gamers or people skilled in online and smartphone communications as a prank. They make a false report of a serious crime in progress, resulting in police making a major show of force on innocent, unsuspecting people.

The fatal swatting case started Thursday when a man called the 911 center in Wichita, Kansas, and said he'd shot his father and was holding his mother, sister and brother hostage inside a house, authorities said.

Police didn't know the call was a hoax, having originated 1,400 miles away in the Los Angeles area. They went to the house in Wichita at an address they were given, and that's where Andrew Thomas Finch was shot to death. Police said an officer shot Finch, who was not armed, after he moved his hands to his waistline.

Many charges possible

Tyler Barriss, 25, was arrested Friday in Los Angeles in connection with the Wichita incident on a fugitive warrant by Wichita police, said Los Angeles Police Officer Mike Lopez. Authorities have not said why they took Barris into custody and what charges, if any, will be filed against Barriss, nor have they said what led to his arrest. They have not publicly identified him as the caller or said if others may be charged.

Authorities said he'd been convicted of phoning in multiple bomb threats to a Los Angeles television station in 2015. Sources have told CNN he was active in the gaming community. Efforts to determine whether Barriss has an attorney were not successful Saturday.

CNN legal analyst Paul Callan said Saturday federal authorities will be involved in the case because the 911 call crossed state lines.

No federal swatting laws exist, but a number of federal charges could be filed, such as obstruction of justice, attempted obstruction and wire fraud. Wire fraud, Callan said, is "a catchall statute for these new crimes that haven't been anticipated."

State authorities could file a homicide charge, he said.

"It might be a reckless homicide because when you do something like this to set up a raid by a SWAT team on an innocent family, you're putting people's lives in danger," he said.

The 911 call

One problem in prosecuting swatting cases is that many are perpetrated by juveniles as a prank or joke, and it's difficult to prove they had an intent to cause harm.

In 2013, a 12-year-old boy made swatting calls to actor Ashton Kutcher's home, as well as musician Justin Bieber's residence. Because the suspect was a juvenile, his punishment is not known.

The 911 tape in the Wichita case reveals the caller describing a close-to-exploding situation, telling the 911 operator he fatally shot his father and was holding family members at gunpoint. He asks if police are coming to the house.

"I already poured gasoline all over the house, I might just set it on fire," the caller said.

"OK, well we don't need to do that, OK?" the 911 operator said.

"In a little bit I might," the caller said.

Callan said those words created a highly dangerous situation. Even if the caller didn't intend to create a violent confrontation, he should have known that was a real possibility, he said.

"I see no difference between doing that and dropping a brick off of the top of the a building into a crowded street," he said.

Kansas authorities probably would be the ones to file a homicide charge, he said, noting that a reckless homicide conviction in Kansas is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

The fact that the call was made from California shouldn't be a problem, Callan said. When parts of a crime occur in separate states, either or both states have the right to file charges, he said.

The police position

Wichita police have not said what action might be taken against the police officer who shot and killed Finch. Wichita Deputy Police Chief Troy Livingston said Finch moved his hand toward his waistband.

"Our officers came here preparing for a hostage situation. Several got in position. A male came to the front door, and one of our officers discharged his weapon," Livingston said.

Callan said he doesn't think the officer will be charged if the evidence shows Finch "went for his waistband in a way that looked like he was going for a gun."

However, the killing shows the need for a new kind of training for police. "They have to be super careful that this is not a prank when they do a raid on a home," Callan said.

Celebrities often targeted

Swatting has been around since the early 2000s. Celebrities are often the victim.

In California alone, swatting calls have targeted the homes of actor Tom Cruise, comedian Russell Brand, Kim Kardashian and singers Rihanna and Miley Cyrus.

A California state legislator who'd been swatted himself led a drive to make the anti-swatting law tougher.

As of January 2014, anybody convicted of falsely reporting an emergency could be ordered to spend a year in jail and reimburse the city departments up to $10,000 for responding to the scene.

Federal cases

Though there's no federal anti-swatting law, people have been prosecuted on related charges.

In 2015, Matthew Tollis of Wethersfield, Connecticut, was sentenced to a year in prison, three years of probation and ordered to perform community service after being convicted in connection with a series of swatting incidents, the US Justice Department reported.

The US attorney's office in New Haven, Connecticut, said Tollis took part in swatting calls to the University of Connecticut, the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, Boston University, two high schools in New Jersey and a high school in Texas. He pleaded guilty to conspiring to engage in the malicious conveying of false information, namely a bomb threat hoax.

In July 2014, Jason Allen Neff of Omaha, Nebraska, was sentenced to five years in prison after pleading guilty to swatting-related charges, the US attorney's office in Dallas reported.

He was convicted on one count of aiding and abetting the conspiracy to use access devices to modify telecommunications instruments and to make unauthorized access to protected telecommunications computers and one count of obstruction by retaliating against a witness, victim or informant. Six other people involved in the swatting case were sentenced to prison sentences ranging from 30 to 60 months, authorities said.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 147582

Reported Deaths: 3937
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion24410780
Lake12911350
St. Joseph8651154
Elkhart8281130
Allen7756221
Hamilton5872113
Vanderburgh547750
Tippecanoe346414
Monroe316238
Hendricks3116130
Johnson2947127
Porter288948
Clark280857
Delaware277174
Vigo245534
Madison224587
Cass220120
LaPorte208853
Warrick185362
Floyd170865
Kosciusko169221
Howard155366
Bartholomew137557
Dubois133423
Marshall129826
Henry120728
Boone117748
Grant116839
Wayne114923
Hancock112844
Noble110033
Jackson106412
Morgan90840
Dearborn89528
Daviess82732
Gibson8229
Clinton80116
Shelby76929
Lawrence76732
LaGrange76114
Harrison72924
Putnam69415
Knox68610
DeKalb67411
Posey6695
Steuben5798
Miami5655
Montgomery55722
Fayette55615
White55615
Jasper5264
Greene50537
Scott50313
Decatur49339
Adams4555
Clay4266
Whitley4246
Ripley4138
Sullivan40612
Wells4045
Orange38124
Starke3787
Wabash3769
Spencer3656
Huntington3645
Franklin35925
Jennings35813
Washington3452
Randolph3318
Jefferson3275
Fulton3232
Pike31512
Carroll30513
Perry28214
Jay2756
Fountain2733
Tipton26123
Parke2152
Newton20511
Vermillion2031
Owen1991
Rush1984
Martin1930
Blackford1843
Crawford1401
Pulaski1401
Brown1283
Ohio1167
Benton1060
Union1010
Switzerland840
Warren721
Unassigned0233

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 181787

Reported Deaths: 5067
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Franklin30590635
Cuyahoga19212671
Hamilton15890338
Montgomery9883184
Lucas8058370
Butler7856122
Summit6406260
Warren393360
Stark3605178
Mahoning3567283
Marion332149
Pickaway294646
Delaware275927
Lorain262389
Fairfield254156
Licking241065
Wood240181
Clark231654
Clermont225936
Trumbull2174134
Greene210840
Columbiana207887
Allen195873
Miami191056
Lake184757
Medina175542
Portage153067
Mercer143327
Ross130533
Wayne125968
Richland125724
Tuscarawas117822
Athens11452
Erie111453
Darke108850
Madison101314
Hancock97520
Auglaize92716
Lawrence88524
Putnam86127
Shelby85014
Geauga81950
Muskingum8174
Scioto7709
Belmont76827
Union7203
Ashtabula71348
Huron6909
Sandusky69022
Seneca57614
Preble57417
Ottawa55930
Holmes53710
Fulton4726
Henry44217
Jefferson4384
Defiance43713
Clinton42013
Jackson4197
Fayette4188
Crawford4088
Logan3923
Champaign3783
Highland3714
Ashland3705
Brown3583
Knox35215
Perry35011
Washington32423
Morrow3222
Williams3124
Hardin30913
Coshocton28612
Pike2780
Wyandot27813
Gallia27413
Guernsey2688
Van Wert2153
Meigs20512
Adams1936
Hocking1899
Carroll1887
Paulding1791
Monroe14118
Noble1120
Vinton853
Harrison763
Morgan690
Unassigned00
Fort Wayne
Overcast
48° wxIcon
Hi: 48° Lo: 39°
Feels Like: 48°
Angola
Overcast
45° wxIcon
Hi: 45° Lo: 36°
Feels Like: 41°
Huntington
Overcast
46° wxIcon
Hi: 48° Lo: 39°
Feels Like: 43°
Decatur
Overcast
46° wxIcon
Hi: 48° Lo: 40°
Feels Like: 46°
Van Wert
Overcast
46° wxIcon
Hi: 48° Lo: 40°
Feels Like: 46°
Cloudy Tuesday
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events