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Can You Be Jailed for Playing Childhood Pranks?

We asked an expert about pulling people's trousers down in public.
30.5.14

Last week a 33-year-old man pled guilty to a charge of common assault, was ordered pay £200 costs and given a 12-month conditional discharge. His crime? Chucking an egg at Nigel Farage during a UKIP rally in Nottingham.

While having a suit dry-cleaned is an excruciating hardship nobody should have to endure, the verdict did seem a bit much. What’s next? GBH charges for prank calling someone? A custodial sentence for leaving a flaming bag of shit on a stranger’s doorstep?

Annoncering

We wanted to find out, and figured the best way to do so would be asking an expert about the maximum punishment you could potentially receive for a range of playground pranks. That expert is Tim Lawson-Cruttenden, a controversial anti-harassment lawyer, who kindly took the time out of his day to answer questions about pulling people's trousers down in public.

VICE: Hi Tim. So, hypothetically, what's the worst punishment you could get for egging someone?
Tim Lawson-Cruttenden: Well, I suppose egging someone is a criminal assault – probably common assault – but mostly wouldn't end in a custodial sentence. If I were representing a defendant, I’d be going for: "They’re nice but misguided – give them a bind over or give them a conditional discharge." There would normally be a reason, and then you could put forward a mitigation. If [Farage] was egged by a member of the Romanian community and he’d just made disparaging remarks against the community, you might be able to argue justification.

In one sense, in a matter of law, there can never be a reason to egg someone. But if you’re reacting to really crude racist remarks, which obviously we had with Mr Farage against the Romanian community, then you could say an egging by a Romanian – or on behalf of a Romanian – might be justified in the circumstances. That would be a defence to a charge of harassment.

So what's the very worst punishment you could get?
If you’re of good character – or if you haven’t got too many convictions – then I suppose a fine, probably. They can means-test fines, so if you’re really, really wealthy it could be quite a few thousand pounds. But for a guy who’s out of work it would be £10 or £15, or whatever. It’s all relative.

Annoncering

What about prank calling? How much trouble can that get you into?
Prank calls that involve 999 can be taken pretty seriously. For example, you could make a prank call to an ambulance that leads to someone dying because the ambulance wasn't available. If you prank call someone and tell them somebody's died, then they have a heart attack or you cause psychological injury you could be looking at charges like assault or grievous bodily harm. You can also assault someone over the telephone, and you're looking at custody for that, too. A lot of people don't realise you can assault someone without touching them, but if you cause someone to fear for their safety then that's an assault.

What could you get for "debagging", as in pulling someone's trousers down?
I suppose it depends where it is – if it’s at a rugby club, where that’s normal behaviour, or if it’s done in high spirits or if it’s done maliciously. If it’s done maliciously – to humiliate and to intimidate – then that's a common assault. I’m not sure someone would get custody for that, but they would probably get a stiff fine – a few hundred pounds probably, but it depends.

If it’s done where everyone’s drunk and there are a lot of high spirits, it’s different to if it’s done in the cool calmness of an initiation ceremony at a public school. Again, it depends on whether it’s done by a boy, or by a master, or by a prefect. There are all sorts of aggravating circumstances: is it done by someone with authority or someone without? Is it done by someone within their peer group or not? If it's during an initiation ceremony it would be a heavier sentence. If it’s mitigated upon by high spirits then you would probably get very little. If it’s done by a prefect or someone in authority then it could be [a custodial sentence].

Annoncering

Okay. Next up: what could happen after leaving a flaming bag of shit on someone’s doorstep?
It depends on the association. That could be harassment. It could be stalking. And there could be a very sinister message behind that. It depends; say you had a very close relative who’s incontinent, the faeces could be a reference to the incontinent relative, and maybe that relative died in very tragic circumstances or due to hospital malpractice. The association of that is pretty traumatic. If you're part of a conspiracy and there’s a course of conduct that’s really sinister, there’s a wider story to be told and there’s a direct link with it, that could be quite serious, so you could get quite a few years for that.

Say you left something outside an elderly Jewish person’s home on Holocaust Memorial Day when, say, that person had actually survived Auschwitz. That could be regarded as fundamentally anti-Semitic, and we’ve apparently got a rise of anti-Semitism in this country now, so the court could take that very seriously and mete out a custodial sentence as a matter of deterrent.

What about playing knock-down ginger too many times?
Well, I suppose that’s harassment. Summary harassment is up to six months. The court would probably initially try a restraining order, ordering the person not to do the repeated knocking on the door. Breaching the restraining order is probably what would be punished. And if you breach a restraining order the starting point would be custody. You’re breaching a court order, you’re committing a contempt of court.

Annoncering

That sounds pretty serious.
Breaching a court order is potentially quite serious because it’s the only thing that stops us from degenerating into anarchy and un-democracy.

What about toilet-papering someone’s house?
It depends if it’s innocent horseplay or if there’s something sinister to it. Is it giving a sinister message that they are rubbish or something? I’d say it’s probably harassment.

So similar rules would apply to the knock-down ginger punishment?
Yeah, probably. I think you’re going to be in trouble if the court thinks there’s a sinister undercurrent.

Are you familiar with the phrase bog-washing?
I went to public school in the old days.

Okay, so what kind of punishment could you get for that?
It depends on who’s doing it. If it’s done by someone in authority I’d say there’s an aggravated element there. If it’s done as part of a misguided initiation ceremony then I guess there’s a possible mitigation, but it’s clearly an assault. It's an assault and it’s pretty unpleasant. If it’s done by a master in a public school then I’d say probably a custodial sentence, because it’s a breach of trust, a breach of authority. If it’s done by a prefect in a public school – probably [a custodial sentence]. If it’s done by boys it depends on the culture of the school.

If people are in their mid-twenties when it’s done – well, if you have to force someone’s head down the loo it’s bound to be a scuffle or a fight if someone doesn’t want to have it done. If there are any injuries then we’re talking about assault that’s causing actual bodily harm, not just common assault. So we're in the realm of a custodial sentence if a court wanted to, because an ABH assault does carry custody in a way that a common assault doesn’t.

Annoncering

Would that be months or years?
Probably not a long time. But everyone realises that a custodial sentence is pretty fatal; you’re probably going to lose your job.

I think I know the answer to this one already, but what could happen if you were caught throwing stuff off a motorway bridge?
Well, that’s normally custody. It depends on what you’re throwing; if you’re throwing bricks or paving stones and it hits a car, you’re talking about custody because you’re being reckless, aren’t you? That’s reckless behaviour.

What if you threw something soft that hit a car but didn't do any damage?
Yeah, because you’re causing massive apprehension in the mind of the driver. That is an assault. You're causing that driver fear for him or her, and his or her passengers. That could cause him or her a shock. That’s potentially, I’d say, grievous bodily harm. You’re driving at 60 mph down the motorway and it comes towards you and hits you and you can’t take evasive action because you’re between two lorries.

You’ve got to have a pretty good reason. If it’s part of an environmental protest and everyone knows what’s happening and they’re throwing pink balloons with water in them it might be a bit different, because everyone knows and you’re making a point. But if there’s an aggravated element and you’re causing apprehension, then again it's probably custody.

What’s the most extreme punishment you could get for drawing on someone when they’re passed out?
It depends on how permanent it is, and it depends where and who. All this stuff depends on whether there are aggravated circumstances. If I went to a stag night, got drunk and went home with "Tim loves Tracey" written on my buttocks, I don’t think my wife would be very happy about it. If that was done to cause tension between me and my wife then there would be an element of aggravation in the offence. The starting point in the offence of a permanent marker on somebody’s body is definitely causing actual bodily harm. I’m not saying it’s grievous, but if someone was tattooed when drunk, against their wishes, that could be GBH.

Annoncering

What are the mitigating circumstances there?
It depends on your view of tattoos. I happen to have very conservative views about tattoos. I do not like tattoos. Some people do, some people don’t, and that’s a matter for them. So if someone tattooed my body I’d be pretty hacked off about it. It depends how malicious it was.

Tattoos where people refer to their girlfriends – if someone had just broken up with a girlfriend and is now going out with another girl, then you tattoo the previous girlfriend's name, that’s pretty mischievous. There would be an element of harassment there. Or if it’s part of a course of conduct of harassment where you’re making silent phone calls to the ex-girlfriend or the new girlfriend, then you tattoo the old girlfriend’s name on the new boyfriend, as it were, then you are harassing them. A summary offence would be up to six months in prison. Are there aggravating circumstances or are there mitigating circumstances? Is it horseplay or is it harassment?

Okay, got you. Finally, what about the flower pot game, where people swap their neighbour’s flower pots around to very mildly freak them out?
Technically it’s a trespass because you’re going into someone’s garden. You might have implied consent to go into someone’s garden and deliver a letter, but you don’t have implied consent to swap their flower pots around. That’s a civil offence, not a criminal offence. It depends on the aggravation. If the person’s Jewish, you’re swapping some flowers on Holocaust Memorial Day and those flowers have an association with death or with the death of relatives in a concentration camp, then there would be a sinister element there.

Annoncering

I’m a harassment lawyer so I try to work out whether or not there’s something underlying the behaviour – if it’s just innocent horseplay or if there’s a sinister undercurrent, and I’m only interested in the sinister undercurrent. Is there a pattern of behaviour that this falls under and is that pattern of behaviour good humoured or is it sinister? That’s what I’m looking for as a harassment lawyer, and what I think the courts would look for, too.

Thanks, Tim.

@oscwilliams

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