Punishing the Prankster: Devil’s Night and the Crime of Mischief in Canada

Halloween is this coming Monday and we can expect a hearty mix of cute kids in costumes going door to door for candy and drunken idiots who think a cheap dollar store mask excuses obnoxious behavior. Despite the occasional incidents of idiocy, Halloween is by no means dangerous. The holiday the night before is an entirely different matter.

Devil’s Night, also known as Mat Night here in Quebec, is a night for pranks and mischief. It is celebrated throughout Canada and US and is believed to date back to Ireland in the 1880s. Though originally a night for fairies and goblins, it has evolved into a night for pranksters. Some believe the custom of handing out candy on Halloween developed in an attempt to appease jokers with sweets in order to spare their property.

In Quebec, Mat Night used to be celebrated by taking people’s doormats and switching them, ringing doorbells and running off, and by leaving a flaming bag of dog feces on someone’s doorstep. For those unfamiliar with this particular prank, the prankster fills a paper bag with dog poo, puts it on someone’s doorstep, lights it on fire, rings the doorbell, and runs away. When the occupant opens the door and sees the fire, they will presumably stamp it out, thus ruining their shoes.

Other common Devil’s Night pranks include egging people, toilet-papering houses, dumping rotten produce on front porches, smashing pumpkins, covering cars in shaving cream, and tipping garbage cans. In the US, the nature of the prank depends on the location.

In rural areas, pranksters tip outhouses and open the gates of livestock pens. In Detroit, Devil’s Night is a night for arson and was undoubtedly the inspiration for the setting of the 1994 film The Crow. Arson is so prevalent on this night in Detroit that in 2008, the mayor recruited thirty thousand volunteers to try and prevent the mayhem.

Mischief in Canada comes with a price. Laws against mischievous behavior make what might seem like a harmless prank an indictable offense with serious penalties.

The crime of mischief is a property offense, meaning it’s a crime that affects people’s stuff, not their person. In order to be guilty of the crime of mischief, an offender has to have willfully destroyed or damaged property, rendered the property “dangerous, useless, inoperative or ineffective”, obstructed, interrupted, interfered with the lawful use, enjoyment or operation of the property, or interfered with a person’s lawful use, enjoyment, or operation of it.

Mischief laws also apply to computer-related offenses. That means that if you’re the type to stay in on Devil’s Night and prefer to pull your pranks from behind your computer screen, you might still be criminally liable.

The law specifically prohibits the willful destruction or alteration of computer data rendering data meaningless, useless, or ineffective, obstructing, interfering, or interrupting the lawful use of the data, and interfering with a person’s lawful use of said data or denying that person access to information that they are legally entitled to.

The penalty for mischief varies according to the degree of danger involved. If the prank endangered someone’s life, the prankster is liable for life in prison. If the prank damaged property worth five thousand dollars or more, the prankster is looking at a prison stay of up to ten years unless the prosecution agrees to a summary conviction, which has a lesser penalty. Where the value of the damaged property is less than five thousand dollars, the maximum penalty is two years imprisonment unless you get a summary conviction.

If you play a prank at a location that has meaning for society, the penalties for mischief change.

Religious properties such as churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, cemeteries associated with them, and objects on their grounds are protected by specific anti-mischief laws. If the prank was motivated by bias, prejudice, or hate based on religion, race, colour, or ethnic origin, the offender is looking at a maximum prison sentence of ten years, regardless of the value of the property. Just as in other mischief offenses, it is possible to get a summary conviction, but unlike regular mischief offenses, a summary conviction for this kind of prank comes with a maximum sentence of eighteen months.

The penalties for acts of vandalism on War Memorials vary. If the prosecution opts to charge the prankster with an indictable offense, the offender is looking at a maximum of ten years in jail. If it’s a summary conviction, the penalty is a maximum of eighteen months. Unlike other mischief offenses, this one comes with a minimum punishment: a fine of a thousand dollars for a first offense, at least fourteen days in jail for a second offense. Every subsequent offense will get a prankster thirty days in the slammer.

As with everything, there are good, harmless pranks, and there are bad ones. The good ones are funny for all involved, prankster and victim, and require a maximum cleanup of a hose, some water, and maybe a trash can. The bad ones leave permanent damage to both public and private property and to our collective consciousness by making people frustrated, angry, and feeling unwelcome and unappreciated.

This Devil’s Night, in the wake of heated cultural and political debates, economic strife, and disputes between young and old, it is time to remember what the holiday is really all about: a bit of harmless fun to keep people on their toes.

* Featured image via YouTube screengrab

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