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flash mobs

I Met Charlie Todd!

I’ve known about Charlie Todd and Improv Everywhere since he uploaded Frozen Grand Central to YouTube in 2008. I was fascinated by their creativity and boldness from the start. I went back and watched all their videos and read all the blogs from their missions – it was captivating. I subscribed to their YouTube channel and I joined the now-disbanded “Urban Prankster Network” online.

Charlie Todd and Me

Charlie Todd and Me

Charlie and I have exchanged emails and messages over the years after I helped co-found Improv AZ and I started digging into the legal issues surrounding flash mobs and pranks. He was always friendly and helpful, but since we lived on opposite sides of the country, we never met in person.

A few weeks ago, I got a note from Charlie saying that he was debuting his film “We Cause Scenes” at SXSW. The film follows the story of Improv Everywhere from the beginning to where it is now. I love this story because Charlie didn’t start out trying to create this group. He was just a guy who was having fun with his friends and he embraced the opportunities that allowed it to grow into his career. I was so excited. I immediately put his film at the top of my SXSW to-do list.

I met Charlie about an hour before the film in the convention center. When I saw his familiar face, threw up my arms, and screeched, “Charlie Todd!” I gave him a big hug and chatted for a few minutes before claiming my spot in line. It was so great to meet him in person but because we’ve been conversing for years, it was like seeing an old friend.

The movie was fantastic. If it comes to your city, go see it. It’s a great story.

During the Q&A after the movie, Charlie announced that Improv Everywhere was doing an MP3 Experiment in Austin. I of course rearranged my schedule so I could go. We were given a place, a time, an MP3 to download, and we were told to wear a certain color shirt and bring an uninflated balloon. You’ll have to wait to see the video to see what we did, but we had a blast. It was so great to do a mission with my prankster brothers and sisters.

I give my friend Jeff Moriarty a lot of credit for helping me become the person I am today. If he hadn’t organized the first No Pants Ride in Phoenix, there never would have been an Improv AZ and I wouldn’t be a flash mob attorney and blogger. Watching Charlie’s movie reminded me that I have to give him a lot of credit too. He was the one who came up with the idea for the original No Pants Subway Ride and he was the one who decided to invite the world to participate in 2009. If he hadn’t done that, he wouldn’t have given Jeff his launch into the official prank/flash mob world.

So thank you Charlie. Without you, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.

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Flash Mobs Are Not Crimes

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer.  This blog should not be viewed as legal advice.  It is simply my experiences, opinions, and information I looked up on the internet.

It appears the term “flash mob” is being used inappropriately and its meaning is being overly broadened to include any group activity that is coordinated using social media.  This year, there have been several robberies and assaults perpetrated by a group of people that appear (at least on the surface) to have been orchestrated via social media sites.  The media has called them “flash mob crimes.”  They make it sound like someone created a Facebook event that said, “Meet at Broadway and Main at 10pm.  At exactly 10:03, we’re all going to run into the minimart, grab whatever we want, and run out.”  That’s not a flash mob.  That’s solicitation and possibly conspiracy.  If the event actually occurs, it’s larceny and perhaps inciting a riot.

Improv AZ - Where's Waldo Flash Mob Photo by Jeff Moriarty

A flash mob is defined as “a group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual and sometimes seemingly pointless act for a brief time, then disperse, often for the purposes of entertainment and/or satire.”  Flash mobs have been occurring at least since the 1970’s.  In recent years, they have been orchestrated via email and social media websites; however, that does not mean that every public group activity that is coordinated via social media is a flash mob.

Flash mobs are generally light-hearted innocuous fun.  People who participate in flash mobs ride public transportation without their pants; they welcome back strangers at the airport; they have fake battles between heroes and villains; and they stand frozen in place for short periods of time.  Some protests and promotional events are referred to as “flash mobs,” but technically they’re not.  And any event that has a criminal intent is definitely not a flash mob.

I give the media some leeway when it comes to coining terms; however, I was deeply disturbed when I saw a legal website refer to flash mobs as including criminal behavior.  It suggests the writer did not do their research on this topic.

I love flash mobs.  I have been participating in them and organizing them since 2009.  When Improv AZ organizes a flash mob, we do thorough research on the potential legal implications of our event.  I have attended an event with pages of statutes in my back pocket to ensure that we’re acting within the confines of the law.  We are diligent to inform our participants in advance of their do’s and don’ts.  We may push the envelope, but we never intend to cross the line.  Most of our encounters with police involve them smiling or laughing at us.  At the 2010 No Pants Ride after party, a Tempe police car stopped near us and an officer yelled out, “We had a briefing about you!”  And then he went about his merry way, knowing we were harmless.  A bit odd and rather goofy, but harmless.

Flash mobs are harmless, playful, and unexpected events.  They are not criminal acts by design.  Flash mobs and crimes are two completely different phenomena.  They do not exist on the same continuum.

In other news, the flash mob community needs to send a big “thank you” to Mayor Jackson and the city of Cleveland.   Mayor Jackson recently vetoed a proposed law that would have made it illegal to use social media to coordinate a flash mob.  Thank you for protecting our First Amendment rights!

Is That Legal – No Pants Ride

Disclaimer: Although I am a lawyer, I am not your lawyer. This blog should not be viewed as legal advice and does not form an attorney-client relationship with any reader.  

The Global No Pants Ride is this Sunday, January 9, 2011.  This event was started by Improv Everywhere in New York 2001 and has become an international event.  People in at least 49 cities all over the world will be riding their public transportation without their pants.  They will look totally normal from the waist up, but from the waist down, they will only be in their underwear and shoes.  A common question I often get when I talk about the No Pants Ride is, “Is that legal?”

No Pants Ride 2013 - Photo by Joseph Abbruscatto from Flickr (used with permission)

No Pants Ride 2013 – Photo by Joseph Abbruscatto from Flickr (used with permission)

In most circumstances, the answer is “yes.”  If people were required to always wear pants in public, going to a public beach or pool wouldn’t be that much fun.  To anyone who finds this event repulsive, remember that we will be more covered than most people are at the beach.  Everyone who is participating in a No Pants Ride must follow the decency law of their state.   In Arizona, that means you must have your genitals covered.   You probably don’t want to wear a thong on the ride because (1) there is an argument that you’re not sufficiently covered, and (2) do you really want to put your bare tush on a subway or light rail seat?

If you’re going to wear boxers on your No Pants Ride, consider wearing a pair of briefs underneath them.   You don’t want to risk accidentally exposing yourself when you sit down.

Last year at the Arizona No Pants Ride, our group of about 350 pantsless people met at Arizona Center.  After about an hour of pantslessly enjoying our beverages at Starbucks and Hooters, we were told by mall security that we had to put on pants or leave.  We chose to leave.  (No more business for you!)  That was perfectly legal for them to do.  Malls and businesses are privately owned and just as they can say, “No shirt, no shoes, no service,” they can require that people wear pants while on their property.  We left and went to Dave’s Electric Brew Pub where they were happy to have our pantsless patronage.

I am very excited for Sunday’s No Pants Ride.  For my fellow Phoenix pantsless riders, please visit Improv AZ’s website for all the details and RSVP on the Facebook event page.  If you want to see the video of last year’s ride, it is available on YouTube.  If you want more information about the legalities of flash mobs and public pranks, I spoke about this topic at Ignite Phoenix #5.

See you on Sunday!

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Reflections on Police Authority & Public Pranks

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. I am a law student. In accordance with ABA policy, this blog should not be viewed as legal advice. It is simply my experiences, opinions, and stuff I looked up on the internet.

I took Criminal Procedure this semester to learn more about the legal implications of participating and planning flash mobs and pranks.  While I was studying for my exam, I started to reflect back on Improv AZ’s encounter with mall security and the police last spring and if we should have done anything differently.

The stunt was simple – we had four agents wearing t-shirts that said “Coroner” across the front and back walk through a local mall carrying a stuffed fake body bag.  The purpose was to see the reactions on people’s faces as they contemplated if what they were seeing was real or a joke.  We were stopped and detained by security who called the local police.  The police spoke with us briefly, mostly struggling to understand guerilla theatre, and released us without citation.  Looking back, I think we could have done things differently.

When a police officer suspects that a person has committed or is about to commit a crime, they can conduct a Terry stop to briefly stop the person to ask what they are doing.  They can also ask for identification.  If they suspect that the person is armed and dangerous, the police can protect themselves by frisking them for weapons.   If the police find no evidence to create a reasonable suspicion that a crime has occurred or is about to occur, they can’t detain the person any longer.

Mall Cop
Image by Mike_fj40 via Flickr

Mall security, however, are just people.  They have a job to protect the interests of mall merchants and the safety of other mall patrons.  It’s reasonable for them to confront suspicious behavior, but they have no more authority than Joe Blow Average.  I remember from Torts class that when shoplifting has occurred, they can detain the shoplifter for a reasonable time until the police arrive.  That’s a situation where the police know that a crime has occurred.  I think there’s an argument that they don’t have this ability when they concerns about suspicious behavior.

In some states mall security have government authority, but this is the exception, not the rule.  If they detain someone under the authority of their position without evidence of a crime, there’s an argument that they are impersonating a public servant or peace officer or committing unlawful imprisonment.  I think if we are stopped by mall security during a prank again, we will know that they can ask us questions within the scope of their employment, they can escort us off the private property, but without more than mere suspicion or dislike of our prank, we can probably keep walking if they try to detain us.  We also do not have to show them identification.  They can request it, but there’s no legal reason why we have to comply.

We have only been questioned by police once in the two years that Improv AZ has been in existence.  We are very thoughtful about planning our pranks to be fun and lighthearted.  The last thing we want to do is take the police away from fighting actual crime.  However, if we are stopped by police again, we have to provide them identification – especially with the police being hyper-sensitive to illegal immigration.  The police can Terry stop us and ask what we are doing.  If the stop becomes a lengthy conversation, we can ask, “Am I free to go?” and if the police respond negatively, we can ask, “In what is this pursuant to?” and see if they can provide a valid reason for our continued detention.  If we have purses or bags, the police can ask to search them, but without at least reasonable suspicion of a crime, we can respectfully decline their request.

I don’t want to give the impression that I am anti-police.  On the contrary, I support the police preventing and fighting crime.  I also support people exerting their Fourth Amendment rights.  It’s very rare for the police to be summoned to the scene of a flash mob for legal or safety reasons, and it’s important when that happens, that participants know what rights they do and do not have.

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