Legally Speaking: The 411 on 911 'Emergencies' (Part 1 of 2)

John G. Browning Jan. 6, 2010, 3:00pm

Reasonable minds can differ on virtually anything. What one person considers trash can be another's treasure, and what one individual feels is an emergency might not command the same level of urgency from others.

As far as the latter is concerned, some people have such skewed views of what constitutes an "emergency" that 911 operators all too frequently have to juggle calls about mundane matters with legitimate crises and states have to enforce laws about misusing emergency communications systems.

It's enough of a problem that I feel it might be time for some helpful reminders about just what isn't an emergency.

Helpful Hint #1: Don't Call 911 to Complain About Your Restaurant Order

While most of us might consider this one a gimme, plenty of people out there apparently missed the memo. Take Latreasa Goodman of Fort Pierce, Fla., for example. The 27-year-old woman called 911 three times in March 2009 to report a fast food "emergency": her local McDonald's had run out of McNuggets.

According to Goodman, she had purchased a chicken McNuggets meal, only to be told they were out and she'd have to order something else. After police told the woman that her fast food predicament didn't constitute an emergency, she insisted "This is an emergency. If I would have known they didn't have McNuggets, I wouldn't have given my money, and now she wants to give me a McDouble, but I don't want one."

Goodman, who had been booked into the county jail nine previous times on various charges, was given a written citation to appear in court for misusing the 911 emergency communications system.

Goodman is hardly alone. In February 2009, 66-year-old Jean Fortune of Boynton Beach, Fla., faced the same charge when he kept a 911 dispatcher tied up for about five minutes.

His "emergency"? He wanted to complain that Burger King had run out of lemonade, and that he was told his food would take longer to cook. The dispatcher reminded him that "customer service is not a reason to call 911."

And in Jacksonville, Fla., Reginald Peterson called 911 not once, but twice, to complain about his Subway sandwich. The disgruntled customer initially told police he had purchased two sandwiches and walked out, only to discover that the subs didn't have everything he wanted.

After his first call about how the sandwiches were improperly made, Peterson allegedly became "very upset" and "belligerent" with people inside Subway – prompting a second 911 call to complain that the police were too slow to show up. Peterson got the attention he was missing – he was arrested and taken away by police.

And if you were thinking this is just a Florida phenomenon, think again. In April 2009, a woman in Haltom City, Texas, called 911 to demand police intervention when she did not get the extra shrimp she ordered in her shrimp fried rice. Before police arrived to deal with this seafood "emergency," the complaining customer left the restaurant.

Helpful Hint #2: 911 Is Not for Marriage Counseling or Relationship Advice

In December 2009, police investigated a 53-year-old Kerrville, Texas, woman for 911 abuse after she called their dispatchers 30 times in a six month period for non-emergency reasons. The most recent incident was a call to complain that her husband refused to eat his dinner.

Meanwhile, a frustrated housewife in Aachen, Germany, dialed that nation's emergency police number to complain that her husband would not stop watching porn movies. The 44-year-old woman tearfully told the dispatcher that "nothing will move him, not even if I offer him the real thing, and he has the TV on so loud I'm sure the neighbors can hear it."

The police told her that although there was nothing they could do, they did give her a reference for a marriage counselor.

Meanwhile, police in Nigbo, China, received frantic calls from a woman whose "emergency" was that her boyfriend refused to warm up her cold feet. The officer eventually convinced the boyfriend that it was a man's job to warm up his girlfriend's feet, but also convinced the woman not to leave her feet there for too long. Confucius would have been proud.

Helpful Hint #3: 911 Isn't There to Help With Your Social Life, Either

In February 2007, Edgar Dieguez-Lopez called 911 to complain that he was denied entry to a dance club. Employees at The Caribe nightclub told Beaverton, Ore., police that Dieguez-Lopez was actually barred from the club because he was too intoxicated.

Although he may have considered it a "dance emergency," Dieguez-Lopez would later regret calling 911: when police responded, they found cocaine on his person and arrested him on drug charges.

Joshua Basso of Tampa, Fla., had an unusual request when he called 911 operators in November 2009: he wanted someone to have sex with him. Although the operators hung up on him, he repeatedly called back with the same request.

Police took care of his loneliness when they arrested Basso at his home 15 minutes after the last call, and took him to the county jail on charges of making a false 911 call. I'm sure he made a lot of new friends in jail.

John Triplette must have been even lonelier: the 45-year-old man made over 27,000 phone calls to 911! According to police, Triplette called sometimes hundreds of times in a day because he was lonely. After tracking his cell signal, police arrested Triplette on charges of abusing the 911 emergency system.

Lorna Jeanne Dudash of Aloha, Ore., also mistook 911 for a dating service. In June 2006, a good-looking sheriff's deputy visited her house investigating a neighbor's noise complaint. After he left, the then 45-year-old woman called 911, asked for his name, and wanted to know if the deputy could please come back.

Dudash described him to the dispatcher as a "cutie pie," and "the cutest cop I've seen in God knows how long," before asking the 911 operator to "throw the cute police back her way." The deputy did return, but it was to arrest her for making a false 911 call.

Dudash pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to two years of probation and 100 hours of community service, where maybe she met a nice guy. Hey, there's always

John Browning is a partner in the Dallas office of Thompson, Coe, Cousins & Irons, LLP. He may be contacted at:

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