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When to Call the Police for Suspicious Activity

By Lisa M. Schaffer, Esq. on January 04, 2019 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

See Something, Say Something. We've all seen the Department of Homeland Security ads encouraging people to report suspicious terrorist activity. But what about your run-of-the-mill suspicious activity? What sort of activity amounts to "suspicious"? 

That certainly is open to interpretation. In order to get a little more clarity on the concept, here are a few guidelines to keep in mind when deciding whether to call the police.

Mandatory Reporters

There are situations in which people are legally required to report certain activities where the apparent victim is a child, even if the activity only seems remotely suspicious. "Mandatory reporters" generally include parents, teachers, school administrators, clergy, medical professionals, therapists, and social workers. In some states, anyone who believes any sort of child abuse is taking place must report it. This legal "duty to report" includes sharing important details about the incident, such as the names of the victim and perpetrator. Failure to report incidences of child abuse is a misdemeanor in most states.

Tips for Borderline Situations

Outside of incidences involving children, it may be hard to determine when to call the police. How do you decide whether to make the call? A good general rule is if you believe someone is in physical danger, or someone is committing a crime. Of course, even legal experts might not be familiar with every situation in which someone is committing a crime - after all, there are thousands of them on the books! If you see any of the following, consider it suspicious enough to call police, including:

  • Unusual noises, such as screaming, fighting, and breaking glass;
  • People loitering in or around buildings or areas, especially restricted areas;
  • Vehicles driving slowly and without purpose around neighborhoods, schools or parking lots;
  • People who change their behavior when they notice they have been seen; and
  • Abandoned parcels or other items in unusual locations.

False Reporting

Just as failing to report mandatory incidents is a legal offense, so is false reporting. Most states have laws on the books for falsely reporting a criminal situation, regardless of whether the made-up crime is a misdemeanor or a felony. Making the false report is usually a misdemeanor, and can lead to fines up to $1,000, as well as penalties and restitution fees that can amount to thousands of dollars. Up to six months of jail times is also possible. If you make a few calls regarding suspicious activities to 911 that don't pan out, it's no big deal. Mistakes happen. However, if the error was malicious, or if it seems to be a habit (like twenty calls per year), you could be arrested for false reporting.

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