Practical Jokes And The Law

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You might think your prank is hilarious but will a judge think so too?

Or maybe you are already in this situation. If you have been charged with a crime, which in your eyes was just a prank gone wrong, it is important to speak with a lawyer, sooner than later.

Throughout history people have been pulling pranks, some ending in disaster, and you can’t rely on claiming it was a joke to get you out of legal trouble.

One English judge in 1897 certainly didn’t see the funny side of a prank gone wrong, and had no qualms about holding the culprit legally liable.

Mr Downton thought it would be funny to play a joke on the wife of an acquaintance. His acquaintance happened to be the local owner of his local public house and his wife was in charge of the bar that day.

He told Mrs Wilkinson that her husband, who had gone to enjoy a day at the races, was seriously injured. He said her husband had two broken legs as a result of an illness. No doubt Mr Downton thought his prank was very funny, but Mrs Wilkinson didn’t.

Her shock was so great that it caused her to vomit, made her hair turn grey and required serious medical treatment for weeks.

Mrs Wilkinson sued – although there was no case for assault, as Downton had never touched or threatened her, the judge found that she had a legitimate claim for intentional infliction of mental shock.

Although this was not a case of criminal liability, if your prank ends up seriously hurting someone, even if you didn’t mean to cause the consequences, you could be held liable.

Prank calls seem so common that we would rarely think about the consequences. Sure, we knew as teenagers we weren’t supposed to do them, but are they actually illegal?

Prank calls may be illegal, especially if they are repetitive. Under NSW law, stalking and intimidation are offences if the person doing it knows that their conduct is likely to cause fear in the other person.

This could include prank calls that involve scaring the victim. It does not even matter if the person alleged to have been stalked or intimidated actually feared for their safety.

If you are found guilty of stalking or intimidation, the maximum penalty is five years, a $55,000 fine or both.

Illegality aside, phone pranks can go terribly wrong. This was the case when Aussie presenters Mel Grieg and Michael Christian caused notoriety impersonating the Queen and Prince Charles.

The prank backfired when the nurse tragically committed suicide in the aftermath of the prank. Radio broadcasters are supposed to get the consent of anyone identifiable in a prank before airing it, which did not happen. The presenters were temporarily pulled from air and advertising suspended, but the instances of radio stations getting penalised for such stunts are close to zero.

The Internet is another area where there is a fine line between a joke and something that could get you into serious trouble. Sexting, even as a joke, can quickly become dangerous if the person in the picture is under 18 years old.

Australia wide, sexting under 18 is illegal. It can be a crime and have jail penalties attached so it is far safer to delete the pictures than to send them on, even if you think it will be ‘funny.’

Drink spiking, often done as a joke, is serious, and this will be no defence in court.

Adding drugs or alcohol, even to an already alcoholic drink so that the quantity is more than the victim would have reasonably expected is an offence.

Did you know that most drink spiking incidents don’t involve any other crime like assault or robbery?

Many spike a drink just to see the effect of the drug or alcohol on the person.

These kind of prank spikers may not even recognise their actions as a crime, but any kind of food or drink spiking carries a maximum penalty of two years in jail, an $11,000 fine or both.

So next time you want to pull a prank just make sure you are not going to end up having to try and explain the joke to a judge or magistrate.

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About Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Specialist Criminal Lawyer and Principal at Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Sydney’s Leading Firm of Criminal & Traffic Defence Lawyers.