As the temperature is starting to fall, the Met Office has issued its annual snow warning. Scores of people will be donning scarves, hats and gloves and heading out to play in the snow, make snowmen and throw snowballs.
But can throwing snowballs really get you in trouble with the law?
An offence of common assault is committed when a person either assaults another person or commits a battery. An assault is committed when a person intentionally or recklessly causes another to apprehend the immediate infliction of unlawful force. A battery is committed when a person intentionally or recklessly applies unlawful force to another.
If a person throws a snowball which hits another person, it is likely that they have intentionally applied force to that person.
Whether or not an offence has been committed will likely come down to the issue of consent. If two people have agreed to take part in a snowball fight, there is an inference that they have both accepted and agreed to the risk of being hit by a snowball. It is akin to a boxing or rugby match; there is the risk of force being applied and both parties are willing participants who have agreed in advance. Therefore, a prosecution would be unlikely if one person were to make a complaint of being hit by snow.
If however, you threw a snowball at a random person on the street; you have likely committed a common assault. That person gave no prior consent to force being applied. Even if the snowball missed, you could still be prosecuted if they apprehended that the snowball was going to hit them.
Section 39 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 provides a maximum penalty of six months imprisonment and/or a fine for anyone who pleads guilty or is convicted of common assault.
There are other potential criminal offences you could be prosecuted for. Section 4A of the Public Order Act 1984 makes it a criminal offence to use threatening behaviour which causes another person harassment, alarm or distress. It could be argued that being hit with a snowball could likely constitute threatening behaviour and that it would cause a person alarm. As with common assault, the law prescribes a maximum sentence of 6 months imprisonment, a fine or both.
If you were to throw a snowball at a moving car, you would likely be committing an offence of causing danger to road users. Section 22A of the Road Traffic Act 1988 makes it an offence for anyone to intentionally and without lawful authority or reasonable excuse to cause anything to be on or over a road which in the circumstances it would be obvious to a reasonable person that to do so would be dangerous. It is almost certain that throwing a snowball at a moving car is dangerous. The maximum sentence for anyone convicted of this offence is 7 years imprisonment, a fine or both.
If a snowball-thrower causes damage to property (such as by breaking a window, causing someone to drop their phone or by smashing a garden ornament), they could also be prosecuted under section 1(1) of the Criminal Damage Act 1971. The Act provides a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment for anyone convicted of criminal damage.
Of course, these are all extreme examples of sentences. The likelihood of a prosecution depends on a number of different factors including the facts of the case, the public interest and the harm caused to the victim. Upon sentencing, the courts will refer to the Sentencing Guidelines and will take into account the level of culpability, the level of harm caused and the aggravating/mitigating factors.
Earlier this year, a police spokesman said “throwing snowballs in general is not a crime, but if snowballs are thrown which cause injury or permanent damage then that could be a criminal matter.”
As long as your snowball-throwing doesn’t interfere with anyone else or their property and doesn’t cause injury or alarm to anyone else, you’ll likely be safe from police action.
Our Criminal Defence Lawyers are on hand over the Christmas period to provide 24/7 legal advice and representation.