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No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: When 'Free Hugs' Turn Felonious

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on May 17, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Nothing is life is free. Not lunch, not HBO, not even love. And definitely not hugs. So while a sign saying "Free Hugs" might seem like an altruistic act of simple kindness, you better be ready to tip the man carrying that sign, or face an assault.

At least, that can be the case in Times Square, where Jermaine Himmelstein was recently arrested (for the 17th time) and charged with robbery after punching a Canadian tourist in Times Square after she took him up on his offer of free hugs. So how did a friendly sign and the world's friendliest country turn into a felony?

Not-so-free Hugs, Actually

Allegedly, the disagreement involved tipping. Himmelstein's sign says the hugs are free, but he clearly expects a little something for the effort. Police say that the 22-year-old female tourist took a picture with Himmelstein, and he punched her when she declined to tip him, sending her to the hospital and him to jail. While being escorting from a police station after his arrest, he told reporters, "I was aggressively asking for tips."

Sadly, this isn't the first time Himmelstein's not-so-free hugs have escalated into assault. He readily admitted assaults to The New York Times in 2013, saying "I assault people when I'm mad." And there have similar disputes and encounters, even two just last month, normally ending in assault charges. Here, he was charged with robbery, and could be looking at anywhere from one to 25 years in prison.

Embrace Change

In 2013, Himmelstein's mother defended her son, telling the Times Jermaine is autistic and "comes from a home where we give him hugs." Denise Himmelstein also said she was sorry for his behavior: "Please tell every woman in America, I apologize. Any woman walking through that park, I apologize."

Given his recent criminal history (he was charged in an April assault following his most recent arrest) it may be time for Himmelstein to amend his sign. Or the price he places on his hugs.

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