- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 15, 2001

Congress is trying to give federal prosecutors another tool to go after those who cause anthrax scares, but lawmakers are divided over whether to criminalize pranks as well as those instances clearly intended to cause panic.
The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to take up a bill on the issue today; its subcommittee on crime passed the measure by voice vote yesterday.
In a separate 6-3 vote, the subcommittee decided against limiting the bill to malicious threats, though a version pending in the Senate is limited to hoaxes made with malicious intent.
"If a hoax causes a hospital to be evacuated, people could die. If a hoax causes a business to close, people could lose their jobs. And if a hoax preoccupies law-enforcement officials, the public is denied protection from other crimes," said Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican and the subcommittee's chairman. "Those who prey on fear should be held responsible for their actions."
The bill would make threats a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. Those convicted could also be ordered to reimburse the government for the cost incurred by emergency squads responding to a threat.
The law would apply to anyone who engages in a hoax with the intent to convey there is or will be a chemical, biological, nuclear or other attack by a weapon of mass destruction.
The debate over handling hoaxes is one of a group of bills moving through Congress to address situations arising from the September 11 attacks that lawmakers feel aren't adequately addressed in existing law.
Over the past two months, four persons have died from exposure to inhalation anthrax. The resulting fear has created a charged environment for those trying to carry out hoaxes. Everyone on the committee agreed with heightened penalties for those who want to threaten someone or be disruptive, but they struggled with how to address cases such as office pranksters who have dropped envelopes with white powder on colleagues' desks.
Several members wanted to limit the bill to those who acted "knowingly and maliciously."
Rep. Bob Barr, Georgia Republican and a former federal prosecutor, said prosecutors already have tools to go after hoaxsters and was wary of expanding laws too far.
"There's a rule of reason and common sense that needs to come into play here," he said.
But Mr. Smith said it could hamper prosecutors to require they show malicious intent.
Another former federal prosecutor, Rep. Adam B. Schiff, said the bill already requires prosecutors to show the hoaxster intended to convey false or misleading information. The California Democrat said this is an area where prosecutors should be allowed to use their discretion in bringing a case.
Mr. Smith said the bill's provisions wouldn't apply to school pranksters because juveniles can't be tried as adults.
On Tuesday the House passed by voice vote a bill that would let the Federal Trade Commission impose double fines on scam artists who exploit a national disaster or emergency.


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