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The Thin Line between Halloween Pranks and Disorderly Conduct

Pranks abound on Halloween, and many can be harmless fun. Like putting a scary object inside a refrigerator. Or jumping out of a box or trash can to frighten a friend.Sometimes, though, pranks can involve destruction of property, trespassing, or disrupting the peace. With these types of pranks, the fun can end abruptly as those involved find themselves facing charges of disorderly conduct.Because of this, it pays to know what qualifies as disorderly conduct under Florida law. That way, you don’t wind up with a misdemeanor charge for something that was meant to be a silly prank.

When Halloween Pranks Veer into Illegal Activity

Halloween pranks have a long history in America. Immigrants brought over mischievous traditions from Ireland, Scotland, and northern England, which have their roots in Celtic celebrations. Historians believe that more serious acts of vandalism on Halloween began in the 1920s and 1930s, which caused property damage. Some groups even established a Mischief Night on October 30, and the tradition continues today.In past years, arson pranks have caused major problems on the so-called Devil’s Night in cities like Detroit. Volunteers are often recruited to help patrol neighborhoods for mayhem that could result in destruction of property.Things are no different in Florida, where law enforcement officials tend to be on heavy patrol during Halloween night, looking for acts of criminal mischief and other harmful activities.These kinds of Halloween behaviors may result in disorderly conduct charges or other criminal charges:Acts of vandalismToilet papering a home, throwing eggs at a vehicle, or smashing pumpkins may seem like harmless fun, but they can land you in jail for a night. These acts may be considered destruction of property, which is punishable by law.TrespassingWandering into an abandoned home or graveyard may seem like a spooky Halloween activity, but it can also be considered trespassing under Florida law.BurglaryIf you break into a building or residence with an intent to commit a crime inside – even if it’s simply to steal hay bales – you could face criminal charges.TheftTaking Halloween décor or bags of candy from a neighbor’s porch may seem like the definition of a “trick,” but you could be charged with a misdemeanor for theft if you take the risk.Bashing mailboxesThis qualifies as destruction of property, and could cost you hefty fines and possible jail time.Lighting firesA popular prank is to light a bag of manure on fire and leave it on someone’s property. However, if the fire spreads to the surrounding property or structures, several criminal charges may apply.Threatening others with violenceSurprising someone in a scary way is a common on Halloween. Be careful, though. If the prank’s victim perceives the scary behavior as a violent threat to their safety, they may press assault charges against you.Failing to observe official curfewsSome cities initiate curfews on Halloween night. If you fail to get inside before the curfew, you may be in danger of a violation.

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Loud noises, partying, or fightingCharges of disorderly conduct may fall on you for breaching the peace with loud activity.

What the Actual Florida Disorderly Conduct Statute Says

The Florida statute regarding disorderly conduct officially classifies these behaviors as misdemeanor crimes:

  • Corrupting public morals
  • Outraging public decency
  • Affecting the peace and quiet of witnesses
  • Engaging in fighting or brawling
  • Causing a breach of peace or disorderly conduct

Behaviors like public intoxication, public arguments, and police encounters without violence are the most common scenarios that lead to disorderly conduct arrests. Other examples include loitering, obstructing traffic, making unreasonable noises, or using abusive or obscene language in public.These descriptions are deliberately broad, though, allowing the courts to determine what behaviors should be considered crimes – like the ones described above over Halloween, for example.Punishments, however, are crystal clear. Those involved will face second degree misdemeanor charges at a minimum. Additionally, under certain conditions public fighting can result in a first degree misdemeanor charge, and if a riot is incited, a felony charge may apply.A second degree misdemeanor conviction comes with a penalty of up to sixty days in jail and a maximum fine of $500. A first degree misdemeanor conviction has a penalty of up to one year, plus fines.

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Many people think a misdemeanor charge is no big deal. However, a conviction may lead to significant fines and jail time. If you are convicted of another crime in the future, a prior misdemeanor charge can increase the level of sentencing, which may affect your ability to find jobs or housing.If you face disorderly conduct charges after a Halloween prank, contact a qualified attorney for legal assistance. Defenses to disorderly conduct charges include acting in self-protection, that the behavior did not take place in public, or the right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment. Which defense is right for you will depend on your specific situation, so the best thing you can do is consult with a knowledgeable lawyer as soon as possible.About the Author:Attorney David W. Olson is the founder of the Law Offices of David W. Olson in West Palm Beach. He has been practicing criminal law and successfully representing clients throughout the State of Florida for over 30 years. Throughout his legal career, Mr. Olson has been honored numerous times for both his dedication and excellence in criminal law. He proudly holds the Martindale-Hubbell AV Rating, as well as being recognized as a Top 100 Trial Lawyer (2013), in the Nation’s Top One Percent of attorneys (2015), and as a 10 Best Member of the American Institute of Criminal Law Attorneys (2015). He has even received commendations from members of congress and other public officials for the fantastic work that he's done. Mr. Olson graduated from the University of Florida’s Fredric G. Levin College of Law in 1981 and has been a member of the Florida Bar since 1983.

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