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LOL or SOL?: When a Prank Goes Too Far

By Catherine Hodder, Esq. | Last updated on

Americans love pranks. Hidden camera tv shows fooling people have been popular since 1960's “Candid Camera" and even 40 years later with Ashton Kutcher's Punk'd. Pranks and challenges go viral on social media and across endless YouTube channels. We even acknowledge pranks and hoaxes with two annual events: April Fool's Day and Halloween/Mischief Night.

However, some pranks can get merry pranksters like you into trouble when they harm people or property or turn deadly.

Prank Calls

Although harder to do with today's caller ID technology, prank calls seem harmless. However, they might have unintended consequences and even get you arrested for harassment, hate crimes, and disorderly conduct. States have laws making prank 911 emergency calls a misdemeanor or felony because they can have serious — or even deadly — consequences.

Swatting is a prank-calling hoax, such as reporting an active shooter or a hostage situation, designed to bring out as many law enforcement officers as possible. One such instance involved a Kansas man who was a victim of a "swatting" call and lost his life. Police responded to a false claim of gunshots and a hostage situation at the man's house. When he answered the door, police mistakenly thought he was reaching for a gun and shot him dead.

When Kate Middleton was in the hospital for acute nausea, a nurse patched through a call she thought was from the Queen of England. It turns out it was a hoax by an Australian radio host pretending to be the queen. News of the prank went viral, and several days after the stunt, the nurse who made the mistake died by suicide.

Leave the 'Scream' Mask at Home

The use of this mask, featured in the 1996 movie "Scream," has resulted in charges of aggravated assault and felony child abuse.

A Florida man wore a Scream mask to scare women in Orlando. He ran around an apartment complex with the mask and plastic knife. The women were scared for their lives, resulting in his arrest for aggravated assault. Assault is the threat of immediate physical harm. Aggravated assault is a more serious offense because it can involve the use of a weapon.

In Mississippi, daycare workers wearing Scream masks are under arrest for felony child abuse for their scare prank. They put on the masks and chased and taunted children in their care. Not only did the five workers lose their jobs for their Halloween prank, but they are also now facing criminal charges.

It is not the mask alone, but the way the mask coupled with a weapon (even if fake) or screaming or chasing that causes the perception of imminent physical harm and can lead to assault charges.

Mischief or Criminal Mischief?

Senior pranks are a rite of passage in some schools. However, some senior pranks can get you arrested. What may seem like harmless fun can backfire, leading to arrests for trespass, property damage, criminal mischief, vandalism, or theft.

And viral TikTok challenges can get you into trouble too. In 2021, several teens were arrested for vandalism and theft from a "#deviouslicks" TikTok trend encouraging stealing and destroying school property.

Even seemingly benign pranks such as toilet-papering or egging a house or ding-dong-ditch can be deadly. In 2020, three boys rang the doorbell of a California man and ran away. He became so enraged that he chased the boys in his car, causing them to crash. All three boys died, and the man is awaiting trial on three murder charges.

Tips for Harmless Pranks

There is such a thing as a harmless prank, practical joke, or good-natured fun. But if you want to put a scare into a friend or family member, keep the following things in mind:

  • Know your audience: You can jump-scare your 25-year-old sister, but it may not be smart to even startle your 80-year-old grandmother with a heart condition. Understand who you are pranking and if they can handle it.
  • Avoid trespassing: Trespassing is going on someone's property without permission. Not only are there state laws against criminal trespass, but you could also be risking your life. States with stand-your-ground laws allow property owners to use force if they feel threatened with personal injury.
  • Don't damage property: When Texas seniors pranked their high school with post-it notes, they had permission from the administration. However, things got out of control, and the seniors started defacing walls, destroying furniture, and discharging fire extinguishers, causing thousands of dollars worth of damage.
  • Don't cause physical or emotional injury: Physical harm is "battery," defined as harmful or offensive touching. Emotional harm can range from assault to intentional infliction of emotional distress, which can get you sued.

So have fun, but be respectful and remember people's boundaries. If you do find yourself under arrest or facing a lawsuit, you can get legal advice from an attorney about how to best protect your rights and options.

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