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Flash Mobs & Pranks

Is That Legal – Yarn Bombing

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.

Yarn bomb - car antenna

Image by Twilight Taggers via Flickr

A few months ago, a friend sent me an article about yarn bombing.  It involves knitting or crocheting covers for public statues and sign posts.  It looks so whimsical and charming!  It looks like the best way to do it is to measure the item you want to yarn bomb, determine how many pieces it will take to cover the item, make the items, then go back to it and stitch the pieces around it to give it a snug fit.  At first, I thought this would be something that could only happen under the cover of night, but I was pleased to see pictures of yarn bombing happening during the day time.

I have been crocheting for over 10 years.  When I heard about yard bombing, I immediately wanted to grab my tape measure and run downtown to start measuring things to yarn bomb.  I think it would be so much fun to drive down the street and see the post for every sign covered with colorful yarn.  My next thought, of course, was whether yarn bombing was legal.

Is It Trespassing?
It depends.  If what you want to yarn bomb is on public property, like a sign post on a street corner or a statue in park, it’s not trespassing to walk up to it.  If you want to yarn bomb a statue or monument, there might be a sign posted on or near it that says, “Do Not Touch” or “Do Not Climb.”  If what you want to yarn bomb is on private property, such as a lawn jockey in front of someone’s house, it’s trespassing to go onto their property without an invitation.  On the flip side, if the person who owns the private property likes what you did, it’s more likely to stay up longer than yarn bombing on public property.

(cc) Refidnas

Is It Vandalism?
I doubt it.  When I think of vandalism, I think about graffiti spray painted on walls.  To get rid of it, you have to power wash it and repaint the wall.  Yarn bombing is less destructive and completely non-permanent.  I would argue that it is not even defacing property but rather a type of unsolicited public art, like artists who draw with chalk on the sidewalk.   Yarn bombing art can be removed in minutes with a pair of scissors.  I’d say, at most, it’s more like littering than vandalism.  Regardless of what you call it, I doubt the police would waste their time tracking down and citing a yarn bomber as long as they didn’t create any type of public hazard.

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Is That Legal – Public Dancing

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

At 11:45pm on April 12, 2008, Mary Oberwetter and 17 friends engaged in silent dancing inside the Jefferson Memorial while listening to music on their headphones to celebrate Thomas Jefferson’s birthday.  The Park Police arrested her when she refused their order to stop.  Oberwetter was charged with interfering with an agency function and demonstrating without a permit, which violates the National Park Service Regulations.  She responded by filing a lawsuit claiming that the police violated her First and Fourth Amendment rights.  On May 17, 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed the judgement that she was lawfully arrested and upheld the dismissal of her claims.

After the ruling came down, five more protesters were arrested for dancing in the Jefferson Memorial over Memorial Day weekend.  The group, led by Adam Kokesh and Edward Dickey, referred to their behavior as civil danceobedience.

Many people, including Elie Mystal from Above the Law, found the ban on dancing in memorials disgusting.  In response to the court ruling and the subsequent arrests, groups all over the world staged dancing events at memorials.  It was reported that as many as 38 countries participated in the event, including demonstrations at the Jefferson Memorial and in Phoenix, Arizona.  I could not find any reports of any arrests at any of the events.

Photo by Adam Nollmeyer

Unfortunately the problem here is the law is clear that any demonstration at a memorial won’t be tolerated.  It’s sad, but that’s what it is.  This event made me wonder, on what grounds might someone be arrested for dancing in public and what can people to prevent it?

Assault:  Assault requires intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly causing any physical injury to another person or placing them in reasonable apprehension of imminent physical injury.  So as long as you keep your body at a sufficient distance from other people, I don’t think dancing constitutes assault.

Trespass: Trespass requires knowingly entering or remaining unlawfully on any real property after a reasonable request to leave by the owner or any other person having lawful control over such property, or reasonable notice prohibiting entry.  Public property, like parks containing memorials, are open to everyone so as long as no person with proper authority, dance on!

Unlawful Assembly or Riot:  These crimes require two or more people acting together with force or violence or threats of force that disturb the public peace.  As long as you and your friends can dance without threatening anyone, then it’s ok.

Disorderly Conduct:  This is a catch-all crime for general bad behavior; however, the law requires the intent to disturb the peace with unreasonable noise or violent or seriously disruptive behavior.  I’m guessing you have to be a really bad dancer to rise to the level of seriously disruptive behavior.

Obstructing a Thoroughfare: To obstruct a thoroughfare, you have to recklessly interfere with the passage of a thoroughfare by creating an unreasonable inconvenience or hazard without a legal privilege to do so.  Thus, dancing on the grass, away from the sidewalk or otherwise not interfering with other people’s ability to use the sidewalk because of your dancing appears to be permissible.

Bolin Park Rules by Ruth Carter

It’s important to note when you’re dancing at a memorial to look for any signage that indicated whether you are permitted to be on the memorial itself.  In Bolin Park in Phoenix, there are over a dozen memorials and statutes.  I was surprised that each one did not have a “Do Not Climb” plaque until someone pointed out that this notice was on the posted signs with all the rules regarding permitted behaviors in the park.

We had a great time at the dance event in Phoenix.  There was another rally going on and there was lots of police and security present.  At one point we went over to their area and started dancing on the lawn when they started to play music.  The police looked at us strangely and smiled.

Thank you to Phoenix commercial photographer Adam Nollmeyer for shooting such awesome footage at the Phoenix Dance for Liberty Flash Mob.

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Hello? Did you really not know this was my doing?

Photo by Adam Almaraz

I love these types of flyers.  They always make me smile.  I am trying to add as much joy to my last days of law school as possible.  I’m so excited to be done.

Improv Arizona got its hands on this Lionel Richie flyer a few weeks ago and hung some up around the Mill Avenue area of Tempe.  I decided to bring the Lionel Richie love to the law school on Tuesday morning.  I hung two of these up on bulletin boards in classrooms in the law school on Tuesday morning.  I didn’t see anyone reacting to it while I was in class, but later the responses to my friend’s picture of the flyer on his Facebook page showed that people enjoyed it.

I was a little bummed that both flyers were gone by Wednesday morning.  I guess professors and future lawyers, as a whole, don’t have much of a sense of humor.  Thankfully I found one of them in a recycling bin and put it back up.

If you want the Lionel Richie flyer, Improv Arizona has a linked to it on their blog.

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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Is That Legal – Improv AZ Coroner Prank #2

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.

Last week the Improv AZ crew decided to revise their world –famous coroner prank, only this time instead of having four people in “coroner” shirts carry a stuffed body bag on the light rail, we took it for a walk through Chandler mall.

We were hoping to raise a lot of eyebrows and get a lot of double takes and surprised stares of disbelief.  We succeeded in that, but we also spent just enough time in the building to get the attention of mall security.  Not wanting to cause any trouble, we offered to leave.  They refused our offer and called Chandler Police instead.  A mall cop claimed we committed “a dozen felonies.”  The real cop said we could have been charged with disorderly conduct.  In the end, they let us go with a warning and the mall cops banned us from Chandler mall for three months.

Of course as the group’s CLS, I did my usual research before doing this prank, and after our run in with the law, I rechecked everything.

What can mall cops really do?

Mall cops are citizens and can only make citizen arrests.  If they are an agent of the property owner, they can ask people to leave and call law enforcement to arrest them for trespassing if the patrons don’t comply.

Did we commit trespassing?

I don’t think so.  Shopping malls open themselves up for members of the public to enter and shop.  We are, in legalese, “invitees.”  If we had been asked to leave by a property owner or their agent and then refused to go, then we would have been trespassing.

Were we illegally impersonating a government official?

The way Arizona law is written, we would have to pretend to be a public servant and engage in conduct “with the intent to induce another to submit to [our] pretended official authority or to rely upon [our] pretended official acts” to be charged with impersonation.  We did nothing to assert our authority against any mall patrons or anyone else.

A mall cop tried to tell us that our fake coroner badges made us guilty of a felony, but anyone looking closely at them would have seen that they were made with someone’s laminator at home.  Our badges had our pictures – mine was my Twitter avatar – and the words “Coroner” and “All Access Pass.”  The mall cop took our badges from us and turned them over to the Chandler police officer.  After looking at them briefly, he gave them back to us.

FYI – Arizona doesn’t have coroners.  It has medical examiners.

Did we commit disorderly conduct?

I think that’s a stretch at best.  Arizona law defines disorderly conduct as engaging in certain behavior “with the intent to disturb the peace or quiet of a neighborhood, family, or person or with the knowledge of doing so.”  The only behavior they could have tried to pin on us was “fighting, violent or seriously disruptive behavior.”   Our conduct could have been considered disruptive, but probably not deserving of being in the same category as violent behavior.  The other behaviors on the list for disorderly conduct didn’t seem to apply since we weren’t making noise, using offensive language, carrying weapons, or preventing business transactions from occurring.

Could the mall cops make our camera guy prove he’d erased the footage he shot with his phone?

Mall cops are just civilians so they probably don’t have that authority.  Real cops, however, can search your phone if it’s related to an arrest.  Otherwise, it looks like they’d a search warrant.

Is it illegal to walk around with a fake dead body?

I looked through Arizona statutes and didn’t find any laws against having fake dead body.  I find out about some of the things you can’t do with an actual dead body:

  • You can’t move a dead human body with the hopes of abandoning or concealing it.
  • You can’t move a dead body from its grave without authority of law.
  • You can’t steal stuff off or from a dead body.
  • You can’t have sex with a dead body.

For now the four coroners are banned from Chandler mall.  The mall cop gave each of us a card with the Chandler mall code of conduct on it.  I’d share this list with you (it’s pretty funny) but it’s too long, and surprisingly, Chandler mall doesn’t have it available on their website.

Related Articles:
Official Improv AZ Blog: When Mall Cops Swarm – The Coroner Prank #2
Video: Improv AZ – Coroner Prank 2, “Bob Goes To The Mall”