Wet Willy and Mr. Nub

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You might have thought that our nation's court system would not have to trouble itself with the act commonly known as the "wet willy," but if so, you were sadly … well, actually you were mostly right. But not entirely.

For international readers that may not be familiar with the term—I'm sure the act is universal, but not the name—to administer a "wet willy" is to lick one's finger and then insert said finger into another's ear canal. The purpose for doing this might vary from mild harassment to a desperate bid for attention, though I'm no psychologist. The "wet willy" is classified under "petty assault" on the Wikipedia page "list of school pranks" (along with, for example, the noogie, the wedgie, the towel snap, pantsing, "happy corner" and the circle game), and that seems about right as a general description, at least.

Note, however, that if you are a 34-year-old homeless man and you administer a wet willy to a four-year-old boy to whom you are a complete stranger (WFSB, Hartford Courant), Connecticut may instead classify it as second-degree "breach of the peace" and/or "reckless endangerment."

Neither story gives many details about the incident, saying only that it occurred in the waiting room of a business while the child was playing with his mother. What spurred the man to administer the wet willy is unknown, but after he did so he was "confronted by the mother and staff," whereupon he fled. Police later apprehended him and he was charged with the two crimes mentioned above.

Of course my first reaction to this was, "when exactly did it become illegal to annoy a four-year-old," but I've given it some further thought. One answer might be "when you become a 34-year-old homeless man," but that seems much too easy for this site. So let us continue our analysis.

First, does a wet willy constitute a "breach of the peace" under Connecticut law? Well … yes:

A person is guilty of breach of the peace in the second degree when, with intent to cause inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, or recklessly creating a risk thereof, such person: (1) Engages in fighting or in violent, tumultuous or threatening behavior in a public place; or (2) assaults or strikes another; or (3) threatens to commit any crime against another person or such other person’s property; or (4) publicly exhibits, distributes, posts up or advertises any offensive, indecent or abusive matter concerning any person; or (5) in a public place, uses abusive or obscene language or makes an obscene gesture; or (6) creates a public and hazardous or physically offensive condition by any act which such person is not licensed or privileged to do. 

Conn. Stat. § 53a-181(a). Most of this doesn't apply, but I'd have to agree that at a minimum he "intended to cause annoyance" by "creating a physically offensive condition"—I mean, that's what a wet willy is for—by means of "an act he was not privileged to do." Statutes like these are infamously broad, of course; often they are limited by First Amendment concerns, but I don't see that applying here, or at least I'm having trouble thinking of what message a wet willy might be intended to convey. "Get out of my way, four-year-old" comes to mind, but words or non-contact gestures would be better for that. So, I guess the answer is yes: it is technically a crime to give someone a wet willy. (The good news is that it's only a misdemeanor.)

Of course, that is true of lots of things that are never or virtually never prosecuted. Any unwanted touching is technically "battery," for example, but you can generally pat a kid on the head or something like that without being dragged off to Gitmo. It is a little sobering sometimes to think about how many of our actions are technically covered by some law or another, and the extent to which we therefore have to rely on the judgment and goodwill of various officials in order to go about our daily lives. Well, maybe "sobering" is the wrong word.

Because judgment and goodwill are often absent, which this incident also demonstrates. Is a wet willy "reckless endangerment"? No:

A person is guilty of reckless endangerment in the second degree when he recklessly engages in conduct which creates a risk of physical injury to another person.

Conn. Stat. § 53a-64. If this had been done violently, they'd have charged him with assault, and I seriously doubt there are cases of wet-willy-induced physical injury. A commenter speculated that he was charged with reckless endangerment because he triggered a police pursuit, but the reports say he fled before police arrived and they tracked him down later. So they really should have stopped at breach of the peace.

Speaking of wet-willy cases, has the term "wet willy" appeared in any U.S. court decisions? I'm so glad you asked.

I found a total of 22 uses of the term, (nine of which used the alternative spelling "willie"). In almost every case, it was the name of a business, either a bar or a water slide. But in a few cases it did refer to the above-mentioned act, though always as just one example of a broader pattern of harassment. See, e.g., Lee v. Reinhardt Motors, Inc., No. 2:05cv235-CSC (M.D. Ala. Oct. 25, 2006) ("Speaks would pass gas when he walked by Lee's desk or wet his finger and stick it in Lee's ear. [n.10: This activity is commonly referred to as giving someone a "wet willie."]). I found no reported cases in which anyone had been prosecuted or sued for a single incident of willying, in other words.

A few of the harassment cases were much more serious than the above suggests—in several cases, the defendant was willing to admit to a "wet willy" but the evidence unfortunately showed things went well beyond that. Then there was Arredondo v. Estrada, a case decided just last month that is … well, I'll let you come up with an adjective:

Undisputed evidence shows that …Plaintiffs worked on a crew supervised by Estrada. Estrada, who was missing half of one of his fingers, was known as "The Nub" or "Mr. Nub." He was well known for threatening to "nub" the workers, meaning that he would punch them in the back, head, or the arm, using his fist with the nub extended. This offensive behavior also included putting his nub in other persons' drinks and licking it and putting it in their ears (a "wet willy"). If Estrada was not engaging in a "nubbing," he was often threatening Plaintiffs with "nubbings" and using demeaning vulgarities….

This conduct crossed all boundaries on at least four occasions, each of which involved one of the Plaintiffs and a similar modus operandi. Certain crew members would capture the Plaintiff and restrain him by either holding his arms and legs or duct taping him and then lay him out or bend him over so that Estrada could [redacted]. Estrada would do so, twisting his hand, and repeating several times.

While Plaintiffs were clothed in fire-retardant coveralls during these assaults, some of those coveralls were made of lightweight knit, allowing painful penetration of Estrada's nub and causing significant chafing.

Emphasis added. So maybe it is a good thing to have a zero-tolerance policy toward the wet willy. Things can escalate.