The sheriff of Larimer County, Colo., announced Sunday that last week’s balloon boy incident, which sent rescue workers scrambling across the state, was a hoax. The boy’s parents will face criminal charges, and the state may seek payment for its efforts on their behalf. Can the government charge anyone for a search and rescue?
No. As a general rule, the United States adheres to the “free public services doctrine,” which states that the cost of law enforcement, fire suppression, and search and rescue should be shared by all taxpayers. However, there are some situations in which the state can demand payment for a rescue operation from a particular person. Under federal and state restitution laws, for example, the victim of a crime can try to recover any costs that were incurred as a result of that crime. Since the Colorado government was itself the victim of the balloon boy hoax, the state can argue for restitution on those grounds. (The cost of a rescue involving aircraft can be tens, or even hundreds, of thousands of dollars.) The same principle holds true for wildfires, which led to a federal court fining a homeless man $101 million last year.
Permitting rescuers to sue those they save—for either the cost of their services or any injuries incurred during the rescue—has the twin benefits of deterring risky behavior and rewarding heroics. It also discourages people from calling for help when they need it. Courts and legislatures are constantly calibrating their treatment of rescuers to balance these effects. In a few Western states, where wilderness recreation necessitates more frequent search and rescue operations, the government is allowed to recover costs from people who commit even minor infractions, like wandering across ski resort boundaries. After a 1995 incident in which Oregon spent $10,000 searching for three climbers who weren’t in peril but forgot their locator beacons, legislators passed a law enabling the state to collect up to $500 when “reasonable care was not exercised.” If you’re rescued from a closed wilderness area in California, you might get stuck with a bill of up to $12,000. New Hampshire bills up to $10,000 for those who “recklessly or intentionally create situations requiring an emergency response.” And there’s no limit to what the Hawaiian government might demand of someone who demonstrated intentional disregard for his own safety.
While these statutes are on the books, they’re rarely used. Oregon is known to have sent out only one invoice since its law was passed. New Hampshire authorities, tired of picking fatigued climbers off Mount Washington, are the most aggressive in recovering costs. They sought $25,000 from a 17-year-old Eagle Scout this year, and the state has considered broadening its right to collect.
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Explainer thanks John F. Banzhaf III of George Washington University Law School and Jay E. Grenig of Marquette University Law School.