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Is 'Just Kidding' a Valid Legal Defense?

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

Can "just kidding" be an effective legal defense? As we observe the prankiest of "holidays," April Fools' Day, there will be more than one jokester who invokes "JK" as a defense.

While "just kidding" may placate coworkers and friends in social situations, it may have mixed success in court.

'Just Kidding' = No Intent

For example, many crimes require a specific mental state or intent in order to find a defendant (even a joking one) guilty. So it's possible you may be able to pull the following pranks but lack the necessary specific intent for a crime:

  • Hiding or "stealing" things. It may be hilarious to take your co-worker's phone and encase it in Jell-O, but not if he or she calls the cops. Luckily for the prankster, theft requires an intent to permanently deprive the owner of his or her property, and unless you accidentally destroyed something during a joke, you probably lack that intent.
  • Messing with food. There are already various YouTube videos describing how to transform mundane office foods into prank fodder -- like filling donuts with mayo. But you can potentially avoid poisoning charges (even if someone is allergic to your prank) as long as you didn't knowingly try to harm anyone.
  • A fatal prank. If popping out from behind a fern while wearing a Richard Nixon mask causes your boss to have a heart attack and die, it's unlikely you would be charged with murder. You would lack the malice necessary since you were really "just kidding."

"JK" isn't a perfect defense, though.

Torts, Crimes Even When 'JK'

Even if you're "just kidding," a prank can still get you jailed and/or sued in civil court. Many crimes and torts do not require a specific intent: Some only require a general desire to do something illegal or a willingness to act negligently.

For example, any "Home Alone"-style pranks that scare or somehow touch your intended victim might be considered criminal assault and battery. These pranks can also create liability in civil court for battery or assault, as even unintended victims would have a case against the jokester.

And even if you were "just kidding" when you hijacked your friend's Facebook or Twitter account to post humorous messages in their name, you could still be hauled in front of a judge to answer for alleged computer crimes.

Legal defense fees are no joke, and it won't work to say "just kidding" to a judge or jury. So on this April Fools' Day, and on any other day for that matter, try to be careful with your pranks.

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