911 Dispatchers and Legal Authority

Often times when people call 911, they are in the midst of an immediate crisis. Perhaps an intruder has broken into their home or they have just witnessed a terrible car wreck. People are generally eager to help others who find themselves in a dangerous situation, though the legality of providing such assistance is sadly often times in doubt. For example, most people do not know whether it is legal to confront a person who is acting violently in public towards another person. Because of this uncertainty, often times 911 operators are asked both directly or indirectly for a legal opinion. But what is their legal authority to issue such advice?

The simple answer to this question is that generally 911 operators are not trained to give legal advice over the phone. Their job duties include dispatching the requisite emergency response personnel and helping callers respond to emergencies. But their job descriptions do not usually include determining the legality of a particular action. As such, any legal advice a 911 operator provides over the phone may not only be incorrect, but it may also be in violation of their written job duties.

Because every state and jurisdiction has the right to create their own 911 operator policies and procedures, it is possible that in certain areas there may be operators who are qualified to give some types of advice about the law over the phone. Additionally, legislatures have the ability to allow judges and juries to consider the advice given to the caller by the 911 operator, even if that advice was incorrect.

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So, while a 911 operator may inadvertently give the caller bad legal advice, depending on the situation and the jurisdiction, there may be laws in place which would mitigate or possibly even eliminate the caller’s responsibility for violating the law as a result.