When Is It not "Just a Prank?" - Criminal Charges for Harmful April Fool's Jokes


For many Americans, April Fool's Day - the first of April - is a favorite holiday for playing jokes on each other. However, sometimes pranks unfortunately go awry or have a greater impact than intended on the victim. With the rise of viral challenges surrounding "pranking" people, more individuals than ever before are being hurt by so-called "pranks" that actually amount to criminal offenses.

As we lead up to April Fool's Day this year, knowing what is and isn't a prank could help you stay safe. At The Law Offices of Daniel J. Miller, we help clients resolve family and criminal disputes.

To get the legal representation you deserve, contact us online or via phone at (757) 267-4949.

"It's Just a Prank" - Jokes in the Social Media Era

Most of us probably couldn't imagine pulling a "prank" that actually puts another person in harm's way or causes another individual severe emotional duress. Unfortunately, social media platforms add a new element to "pranks."

Social media platforms such as YouTube and TikTok have completely changed how many people - especially young adults and juveniles - view pranks. Instead of simply being a joke to share with friends, putting a prank on social media can enable someone to get their own ten seconds of fame, or even make a career out of "pranks."

In one of the more famous examples of "viral" pranks gone awry, YouTuber Sam Pepper "pranked" an individual by appearing to kill their best friend using a gun with a blank and some fake blood. Another YouTuber, DaddyOfFive, temporarily lost custody of his children when he released a “prank” video yelling at his children. In both cases, the YouTubers in question made a living off these "pranks," but it seems clear cut that their content was no laughing matter - and the courts appear to agree, removing custody from the father in the DaddyOfFive video.

In another recent trend, children on TikTok ask a friend to stand between them and jump, after which they sweep their legs out from under them in mid-air, causing them to fall. This viral pranking "trend" has already resulted in at least one death.

Needless to say, pranks that could easily be harmful are more popular than ever - which makes holidays that revolve around them, such as April Fool's Day, more dangerous.

What Makes a Prank a Crime?

When debating whether a prank could qualify as a crime, two elements are important:

  • Intent. If a person carries out a prank while knowing it will bring the victim bodily or emotional harm, it's easier to prosecute the prank as a crime.
  • Action. The actions a person takes while carrying out a prank play a central role in whether it's a crime or not.

For example, let's say you snatch a friend's laptop and hide it from them for a bit, but immediately give the laptop back when asked or before they become distressed. That's a pretty simple prank.

Now, let's say you log into a friend's Facebook account and post something that's harmful to their career, causing them emotional distress. Not only are you likely breaching impersonation laws and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, but you're also intentionally committing an act that causes another person emotional or physical distress. That "prank" could be prosecuted as a crime.

"Pranks" gone wrong are often prosecuted as a wide range of crimes, including:

  • Abuse;
  • Neglect;
  • Assault and/or battery;
  • Destruction of property;
  • Endangerment;
  • Impersonation;
  • Stalking; and
  • False imprisonment;

To name a few.

Common Pranks (& Crimes) Committed on April Fool's Day

Let's take a moment to look at some of the more common April Fool's Day "pranks" that regularly result in criminal charges:

  • Putting toilet paper on (TPing) someone else's property. If you cause significant damage to someone else's property or cause them significant distress, you could be charged with destruction of property. This can also apply to throwing eggs at (egging) someone else's property.
  • Impersonating police. Much like logging into someone else's social media account, impersonating police is obviously a pretty big no-no, but it's a surprisingly common "prank" around April Fool's Day. People also commonly impersonate firemen and higher-up career professionals (such as CEOs), prank-calling establishments and ordering employees to take certain actions.
  • Tainting food. Unfortunately, tainting food is also an increasingly popular prank. Whether it's licking and then putting back ice cream or doing other unclean things to food at restaurants and grocery stores, vegetable and food destruction is a common prank-turned-crime.

This April Fool's Day, take the time to ensure your pranks won't actually cause harm to anyone else. At The Law Offices of Daniel J. Miller, we represent Virginians involved in criminal law disputes.

To schedule a consultation with our team, contact us online or via phone at (757) 267-4949.

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