No Laughing Matter: Criminal Implications of the “Clown Terror” Trend

The circus is in town.

A trend that seems to have begun in the United States has spread into Canada: various, unaffiliated pranksters dressing up as clowns and frightening unsuspecting citizens in cities and towns across the country.

“Creepy clown” sightings have been reported from Edmonton to Toronto to Halifax and elsewhere. Some consider the pranks harmless fun. As of this writing, no injuries have reported. (At least not within Canada).

creepy clown mr. rogers illegal

But the dangers are obvious: a violent reaction against the masked creepers, an automobile accident deriving from the distraction of one such clown, and the social harm of a population feeling uncomfortable walking the streets at night without being frightened or even terrified.

Is Creepy Clowning Illegal in Canada?

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But is it illegal? Could it be considered a criminal offence to dress up as a horror-movie villain and scare people?

It depends. Standing creepily by the side of the road or in a park in a clown costume in the middle of the night is not a nice thing to do, but it is difficult to construe this is as breaking any specific criminal law. Some jokers, however, have done more than stand around waiting to be seen.

In Waterloo this past weekend, a woman reports being chased by three men dressed as clowns – and at least one was brandishing a stick. This summer, two teens dressed as clown chased a group of children around a park in Gatineau, Quebec. One was wielding a two-metre-long chain. Such action is more than merely immature or unkindly behaviour.

That’s assault, brother.

That’s Assault Brother…

Section 265(1) of the Criminal Code of Canada defines the offence of assault:

“[Among other qualifying behaviour] a person commits assault when … while openly wearing or carrying a weapon or an imitation thereof, he accosts or impedes another person …”.

A two-meter chain is a weapon. A stick can certainly qualify as a weapon. Approaching somebody dressed purposely to terrify them proceeding, when they attempt to move away, to chase after them, can certainly qualify as “accosting” that person. Thus such behaviour could very easily be considered as much of an assault as unwanted application of actual force.

So does the clever prankster simply leave the weapon at home and go have his or her fun? It is not that simple.

Another definition of assault from the same Criminal Code section includes a person who “attempts or threatens, by an act or a gesture, to apply force to another person, if he has, or causes that other person to believe on reasonable grounds that he has, present ability to effect his purpose”.

An act gesture that threatens to apply force. Chasing after a terrified person who is desperately running from you, while dressed as a murderous clown in the middle of the night? It is certainly no stretch to imagine a judge who would consider that to be threatening behaviour, is it?

What is the level of intention required to be an illegal killer clown?

Of course a mental element is required: a court must find that the perpetrator indeed intended to threaten force. But an inference can be easily drawn that the threat was intended even if actual force was not applied and there was no actual plan to apply it.

The criminal code goes even further and can capture behaviour in this realm that does not even require leaving the house. In Toronto, mere online threats by a group calling itself “Clowns of the 6” may constitute criminal offences themselves. It is a criminal offence, per section 264.1 of the Criminal Code to knowingly utter, convey, or cause any person to receive a threat to cause death or bodily harm to any person or to burn, destroy or damage real or personal property.

So does the clever prankster simply leave the weapon at home and go have his or her fun? It is not that simple.

Another definition of assault from the same Criminal Code section includes a person who “attempts or threatens, by an act or a gesture, to apply force to another person, if he has, or causes that other person to believe on reasonable grounds that he has, present ability to effect his purpose”.

An act gesture that threatens to apply force. Chasing after a terrified person who is desperately running from you, while dressed as a murderous clown in the middle of the night? It is certainly no stretch to imagine a judge who would consider that to be threatening behaviour, is it?

So what’s the big deal for Creepy Clowns then?

killer clown arrested

It is not clear what exactly was threatened by this online group, but suffice it to say that any threat to cause this type of harm to person or property is a criminal offence: threatening to wear a scary costume while affecting this harm does not make it legal.

All persons are discouraged in the strongest terms from joining this disturbing trend.

This is because much of this behaviour could in fact lead to a criminal charge. And because all criminal code charges can be extremely disruptive – even ruinous – to the lives of those who are charged. And because of the unintentional harm to victims that can be caused by such behaviour.

… And also because … you know … Batman.

2017-02-06T23:13:01+00:00

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