What offences are committed by intentionally setting off a hotel fire alarm?

10 June 2020

Not reviewed after the date of publication

Question:

I am currently investigating an offence whereby a male has intentionally set off a fire alarm at a hotel as part of a protest.

The Fire Brigade was called, a mass evacuation occurred and it caused mass panic and distress to guests.

Please could you confirm what legislation and offences could be used?

Answer: 

Section 49 of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004

In our view, the offence of 'cause a false alarm of fire to be given', contrary to section 49 of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 may apply here. Section 49(1) states:

'A person commits an offence if he knowingly gives or causes to be given a false alarm of fire to a person acting on behalf of a fire and rescue authority'

This is a summary offence with a penalty of a maximum of 51 weeks imprisonment and / or a fine not exceeding level 4 on the standard scale. Penalty notices for disorder may also be enforced.

Section 1(1) of the Criminal Damage Act 1971

It is also our opinion that the offence of criminal damage to property valued under £5,000, contrary to section 1(1) of the Criminal Damage Act 1971 could potentially apply in the circumstances. The relevant points to prove for this offence are:

Without lawful excuse destroyed/damaged property valued under £5000

Intending to destroy/damage such property OR

Being reckless to whether the property was destroyed/damaged

'Damage' means 'any alteration to the physical nature of the property concerned' and has been interpreted widely. Damage does not have to be permanent, as confirmed in the case of Hardman and other (1986) where painted silhouettes that could be washed off a property still amounted to 'damage' in the eyes of the court.

It is unclear how the fire alarm has been impacted specifically, however if it has been set off and for example, is an alarm that requires a glass panel to break to do so, then it is likely a temporary alteration to the physical nature of the alarm could be argued and the offence satisfied. Damage is assessed reflecting the cost of the repair. To note, if the damage was over £5,000 then offence H2081 would apply instead.

It appears that it would not be difficult to evidence intent of the individual in your scenario, however the offence may also be committed via recklessness. 'Recklessness' for the purposes of the Criminal Damage Act 1971 is defined within the case of R v G [2004] 1 A.C. 1034 as 'a person acts recklessly within the meaning of s.1 Criminal Damage Act 1971 with respect to:

A circumstance when he is aware of a risk that it exists or will exist;

A result when he/she is aware of a risk that it will occur; and

It is, in the circumstances known to him, unreasonable to take the risk.'

In our opinion and taking the above definition into account, it could likely easily be argued evidence that any individual in the circumstances would have been aware there was a risk of damage from activating the alarm and would have known that it was unreasonable to take that risk in the circumstances, even though the resulting damage was not substantial as such. For further explanatory notes on the term 'recklessness', please see D37 on PNLD.

The majority of cases prosecuted in the context of the misuse of fire alarms, have involved a situation where the trigger of the alarm has resulted in the fire services being called out and diverted away from other genuine calls and it is likely that it would be in the public interest to proceed to prosecute a case such as this, where mass alarm and distress has been caused to persons.

For further guidance on charging practices, please see:

https://www.cps.gov.uk/legal-guidance/criminal-damage

Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014

Other means of reprise are available under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. It may be that a criminal behaviour order could be made in the circumstances in addition to the offences discussed above, with the requirements being outlined by section 22 of the Act. This requires the following two conditions to be met:

'22(3) The first condition is that the court is satisfied, beyond reasonable doubt, that the offender has engaged in behaviour that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to any person.

22(4) The second condition is that the court considers that making the order will help in preventing the offender from engaging in such behaviour'

The second condition may be justified by the individuals association with a particular group, if there is evidence of previous offending on behalf of the group, this would assist in evidencing the need for an order to be imposed. Furthermore, if this order is then breached – section 30 of the Act means that further offences will be committed.

To read more legislation about this subscribe to PNLD.

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