Writing in Slate, Brian Palmer examines whether government can charge someone for a search and rescue operation:
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.