Clowns Are Creepy. Can They Also Be Criminal?

Scary ClownMany folks have questions about the differences between certain misdemeanors that seem to cover the same behavior: “Menacing”, “Reckless Endangerment”, “Harassment” and “Disorderly Conduct”. They all seem to protect against the same sort of intimidating and threatening behavior, so how are they different?

Recently, there have been plenty of reports of clowns scaring people all over the country. These terrifying carnival folk are carrying weapons, following and chasing people, and even trying to lure children into local wooded areas. In a strange way, these clown sightings help explain the differences in the misdemeanors I discussed above. Let’s run through some “creepy clown” hypotheticals together to give you a better understanding… and get in the Halloween spirit!

Menacing – 13A-6-23

“A person commits the crime of menacing if, by physical action, he intentionally places or attempts to place another person in fear of imminent serious physical injury.”

The criminal act must be intentional and it must place the victim in fear of imminent serious physical injury. Typically, serious physical injury means death or grave bodily harm close to death. Thus, often times, menacing is charged when a weapon is used to intimidate or scare someone.

A few weeks ago, around Flomaton, Alabama, police received reports of people dressed as clowns wielding weapons nearby local schools. Reasonable people would certainly fear that serious physical injury is likely if a person dressed as a terrifying Halloween clown approached you with a weapon. This is an example of menacing.

However, menacing, like all crimes, can work both ways. In Greensboro, a man with a machete chased off a clown who was simply standing near a wooded. In that scenario, the man wielding the machete could be arrested for menacing, though I highly doubt the clown will press charges…

Reckless Endangerment – 13A-6-24

A person commits the crime of reckless endangerment if he recklessly engages in conduct which creates a substantial risk of serious physical injury to another person.

The key difference in reckless endangerment and menacing is the fact that the menacing behavior must be “intentional”; reckless endangerment only requires “reckless” behavior, clearly. This means that while a person may not intend any harm by their actions, those actions are so reckless that the person should have known they were likely to cause harm.

Consider the same clowns near the schools in Flomaton, Alabama. However, imagine that they do not have any weapons. Instead, the people dressed as clowns are chasing students before and after school. If a child were to run into traffic and get hit by a vehicle while escaping a pursuing clown, the clown could be arrested for Reckless Endangerment. Even without a specific intent to chase a person into traffic and harm them, someone who acts recklessly by chasing people to scare them may have to suffer consequences if that behavior causes harm, even if it is not intentional.

Harassment – 13A-11-8

A person commits the crime of harassment if, with intent to harass, annoy, or alarm another person, he or she either: (a) Strikes, shoves, kicks, or otherwise touches a person or subjects him or her to physical contact; or

(b) Directs abusive or obscene language or makes an obscene gesture towards another person

Rather than chase school kids after school or run after them with weapons, suppose the clowns decided to hide in some bushes and jump out to briefly grab people as they walk by. In that case, the clowns are attempting to scare folks by spontaneously grabbing them, and it would be harassment. There is physical touching with an intent to alarm another person.

The provision for obscene or abusive language and gestures would apply only if the clowns in question were yelling very hateful things at people or making highly inappropriate movements with an intent to harass.

Disorderly Conduct

A person commits the crime of disorderly conduct if, with intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, or recklessly creating a risk thereof, he:

(1) Engages in fighting or in violent tumultuous or threatening behavior; or

(2) Makes unreasonable noise; or

(3) In a public place uses abusive or obscene language or makes an obscene gesture; or

(4) Without lawful authority, disturbs any lawful assembly or meeting of persons; or

(5) Obstructs vehicular or pedestrian traffic, or a transportation facility; or

(6) Congregates with other persons in a public place and refuses to comply with a lawful order of the police to disperse.

Foremost, unless one of these clowns is doing something in a public place, disorderly conduct will normally not apply, though one of the other charges may, such as menacing.

This criminal offense will apply in most of the cases where menacing, reckless endangerment or harassment would apply, with the addition that the behavior in a disorderly conduct case disturbs the public or recklessly creates a risk of disturbing the public.

However, simply being dressed as a frightening clown in public will not be enough for a disorderly conduct arrest or an arrest on any other charge for that matter. On the other hand, if the person dressed as a clown impedes traffic, or picks a fight, or interrupts a concert in Big Spring Park, then a charge for disorderly conduct is likely.

If you have your own “clown” situation this Halloween, do not try to take the law into your own hands. Determining whether or not someone is breaking the law, is a matter for police, attorneys and judges. These hypothetical clown encounters are only meant to give you an idea about the differences of criminal offenses that seem to cover the same behavior. Stay safe and smart this Halloween!