Calling 911 For Intentional Infliction Of Emotional Distress

Can lawsuits for intentional infliction of emotional distress stop racist White people from making frivolous 911 calls? It’s time to find out.

When a man in Illinois called police to report that a Black boy was pointing a gun in a park, police shot and killed 12 year old Tamir Rice within 2 seconds of spotting him. Video later showed the boy practicing his draw with a toy gun before being executed as the police cruiser rolled to a stop. Except for the dead boy and his family, no one was punished.

When Ronald Ritchie called police claiming that a Black man was pointing a rifle at children in a Dayton, Ohio Walmart, police shot and killed 22 year old John Crawford III within seconds of reaching the store. Video later showed that Crawford had been wandering the aisles chatting on his cellphone, with a rifle he’d selected for purchase resting on his right shoulder, pointing upwards. Except for the dead man and his family, no one was punished.

We’ve all seen too many cases in recent years of police brutalizing and often killing Black people. The images are so common that many of us are numb to the stories behind them. Yet people of ill will — racist White people, in particular — are increasingly calling (or threatening to call) police on Black and Brown people for frivolous reasons.

There’s the group of friends barbecuing in an Oakland park. There are the store employees speaking Spanish in Manhattan. There are the guys waiting for a business meeting at Starbucks. There are the filmmakers checking out of an Airbnb. There’s the former Obama staffer moving into a new apartment. There’s the Yale grad student napping in a common room. There are the Native American teens on a college tour at Colorado State. There’s the 8 year old girl selling water from her apartment steps in San Francisco. There’s the BART passenger eating a burrito. The list goes on and on.

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You have to wonder what racist White people gain from these frivolous reports. But given the disproportionate brutality visited upon Black people by police, you don’t have to wonder long. These callers are seeking to harass Black and Brown people remotely. They want to assert some control, express a sense of superiority, have their social privilege confirmed by summoning what Jason Johnson, Morgan State professor of politics and journalism, calls a personal racism valet (PRV) service — the local police.

In decades past, racist White people would harass Black people directly whenever they felt annoyed, or felt that someone had stepped out of their “place”. They had the assurance that local police would support them if needed, if there were any pushback. But in the post-Civil Rights era, they are too intimidated to confront or harass Black people directly; pushback is to be expected.

Instead, images of brutality and news of failed consequences have instructed racist White people that the best way to harass and constrain annoying Black and Brown people is to call the police. But as in other areas of life, the law has a remedy for these injuries. After all, that’s what we’re talking about here — injuries. Racist White people are intentionally or recklessly causing injury to Black people they wish to harass.

There’s a common law tort for that called intentional infliction of emotional distress. The name of the tort fits the bill perfectly. Clearly these frivolous 911 callers intend to inflict emotional distress on the Black people who’ve annoyed them.

Many have suggested that people dialing 911 for these frivolous reasons should be subjected to some criminal penalty, or at least fined by municipal authorities for a civil infraction. They are, after all, wasting taxpayer dollars on PRV services. They should be taxed or fined appropriately for the use of those services. But in reality, very few municipalities will punish this behavior. They don’t want to discourage already frightened citizens from calling police when something feels out of order. So that’s not a realistic remedy for addressing the problem. Luckily, our judicial system allows for private actions to redress harms.

As Stacey Patton and Anthony Farley recently noted, there’s nothing to prevent a person targeted by PRV services from suing the frivolous caller for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Lets look at the elements. In California, where BBQ Becky and Permit Patty roam, a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress requires:

  1. outrageous conduct by the defendant, such as abusing one’s real or apparent power to affect another’s interests, or some other conduct likely to result in emotional harm;
  2. reckless conduct by the defendant, acting without considering the probable consequences to another, or conduct designed to cause emotional distress;
  3. severe emotional distress suffered by the plaintiff, including substantial or long-lasting nervousness, anxiety, humiliation or shame; and
  4. that the defendant’s conduct was a significant cause of the plaintiff’s emotional distress.

Each of these elements are typically present in a racist White person’s summoning PRV services to harass a Black or Brown person. No physical injuries are required for an intentional infliction of emotion distress claim, and it is not necessary to prove the frivolous caller’s malicious or evil purpose.

Several states, including California, also make a person liable for negligent infliction of emotional distress, but punitive damages can be awarded in cases where intent is shown. Qui tam actions should also be considered. When a municipality refuses to charge or fine these frivolous callers, interested taxpayers may sue on the city’s behalf. You need a lawyer for that because pro se litigants can’t sue on another’s behalf. But qui tam actions may be something a civil rights organization would pursue with their own attorneys.

Because as mad as this behavior makes the target of a frivolous 911 call, even White people are tired of White people’s nonsense. It bears repeating that a White woman ran BBQ Becky away from that Oakland park. A White woman filmed the cops arresting Black men at the Philadelphia Starbucks. Despite the power of Black Twitter these days, lots of White people helped these stories go viral.

Social media brings these stories to light in new and interesting ways, but the notion that police should be called to harass Black people isn’t new or interesting at all. I recall an incident many years ago as a college student, barely able to rub too nickels together on a good day.

I had stopped payment on a check for some reason, but my bank decided to pay it anyway, causing an overdraft in my checking account. When I visited the bank to ask that they correct the error, a bank manager claimed I’d given a teller permission to pay the check by phone. This was rubbish, and I had lots of questions for the teller:

  • “When did you call me?”
  • “What number did you use?”
  • “What were my exact words?”

When she flubbed the answers, the bank manager caved and ran me my money, but not before yelling at me in outrage, “Well I’ll be sure to tell Sheriff Blalock to go check on you, because someone’s been impersonating you on your phone!” Yeah, she tried it. I did the responsible thing and just stared at her blankly. This nonsense has got to end. I think the credible threat of a lawsuit — the natural outcome of a few actual lawsuits — might be the ticket. Sue these people for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Win or lose, if you file a proper complaint and advance the case through a few procedures, you can make a frivolous caller pay. They may not end up paying you (if you lose), but they will likely pay a hefty legal bill regardless. And that’s a deterrent. So let’s do this: If you’ve been targeted by this kind of nonsense and want to make someone pay, see if Courtroom5 can help get you justice. Put the legal system to good use for once.

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