Legal Side of the No Pants Subway Ride

No Pants Light Rail Ride 2014 - photo by Devon Christopher Adams (Used with permission)

No Pants Light Rail Ride 2014 – photo by Devon Christopher Adams (Used with permission)

Charlie Todd and Improv Everywhere announced the cities that are participating in the 8th Annual Global No Pants Subway Ride (15th ride in New York, 8th ride with global participation). On Sunday, January 10th, people all over the world will be riding their public transit sans pants, and acting as if nothing is out of the ordinary. Phoenix has participated every year with the No Pants Light Rail Ride, organized by Improv AZ.

The No Pants Ride was my first flash mob and the event that launched my interest in flash mob law. Whenever I tell people about this event, one of the common questions I hear is, “Is that legal?” Given that this is a global event, the organizers and participants in each city should review their local laws related to this event and act accordingly. I’m sure it is not fun to be arrested when one is not wearing pants.

Indecent Exposure
Each city/state has its own laws regarding indecent exposure. In Phoenix, we don’t have to worry in general because it is not uncommon for people’s underpants to be bigger than what many people wear to the beach or pool. To violate the Arizona decency law, you have to expose your genitals, anus, or female areolas. This is why Improv AZ advises participants not to wear see-through fabric and to wear briefs under boxer in case the fly separates. Additionally, organizers in multiple cities have a “no thongs” rule. (Remember, you’re on public transportation. Do you really want your skin touching those seats?)

Transit System Rule Violations
Given that participants are expected to act as if nothing is abnormal, following the rules of the transit system is expected. Be courteous and don’t interfere with others’ ability to ride the subway, light rail, or bus. And the fact that your outfit doesn’t have pockets does not absolve you from the requirement to purchase a ticket.

Disorderly Conduct, Public Nuisance, Riot
Many cities have a broadly written catch-all for behaviors that may disturb the peace. If you’re going to organize or participate in a No Pants Ride or other flash mob, always apply common sense to your shenanigans. If you encounter law enforcement, be calm and respectful, and know what information you are required to provide. In the U.S., the police are allowed to briefly detain you if they suspect a crime is occurring or is imminent. And although you have the right to remain silent, you may be required to identify yourself if requested.

Of course, the goal of any flash mob is to surprise and entertain an unsuspecting audience. Ideally, the police should never have to be involved. They have real crimes to investigate. It’s up to the organizers and participants to educate themselves on how to pull off their shenanigans without violating the law or anyone’s rights.

I’m excited for this year’s No Pants Subway Ride. If one is occurring near you, I highly recommend you participate. If you want to chat about the legalities of flash mobs and pranks, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

Is That Legal: The Mannequin Mob

Mannequin Mob Group Photo by Arin Sang-urai, used with permission

Mannequin Mob Group Photo by Arin Sang-urai, used with permission

Recently Improv Everywhere organized a group of 40 agents who donned white MorphsuitsTM to do a prank where they posed as mannequins in the Gap. They all wore Gap-style clothing over their Morphsuits and walked in the store with their masks off. At the designated time the group simultaneously put on their masks and froze in place like the mannequins in the store which are also all white.

Some of the employees seemed to think it was funny but one concerned employee called 911. The police showed up and put many of the performers in handcuffs. Charlie Todd, the founder of Improv Everywhere, explained the situation and everyone was released without incident.  It was pretty funny overall – even the police were laughing by the end.

Let’s look at the legal questions behind this prank.

Is It Legal to Enter a Store to do a Prank?
That’s an interesting question. Stores are open to the public, even for people who are just browsing and have no intention of buying anything.  So it’s legal to enter a store during business hours for reasons other than making a purchase. If you’re not interfering with the store’s operations or others’ ability to shop, you are less likely to have any problems.

This is not the first prank that involved messing with store employees. Improv AZ definitely raised some eyebrows when we did the Apple Store Flash Mob and Improv Everywhere had to deal with the police during their Best Buy Prank.

Did the Group Commit Trespassing?
Probably not. You’re usually not trespassing in a store where the public is welcome to be until you refuse to obey a request that you leave.  From what I heard, the group was told to leave the store immediately and peacefully if requested to do so, but the employee called 911 instead.

Charlie Todd in Handcuffs by Arin Sang-urai, used with permission

Charlie Todd in Handcuffs by Arin Sang-urai, used with permission

Did the Gap Employee Overreact by Calling 911?
I think so. A more reasonable reaction would have been to use the store’s PA system to announce that everyone who was dressed up like a mannequin needed to leave the store and then call the police if they didn’t comply.

Is There a Problem with Wearing a Mask in a Store?
Possibly. Most businesses don’t have a sign that says “No Masks,” but they are often not allowed. Apparently robbers wear them. Improv AZ ran into a problem with this rule when they tried to walk through a mall (just walking, not doing anything wrong) during the first Epic Super Hero Battle. The group was not allowed to proceed until everyone removed anything that was covering their faces.

Is There a Problem with Filming or Taking Photos in a Store?
Perhaps. Each store sets its own rules about whether photography or filming is permitted. If you’re doing a prank in a mall, the entire mall may have a rule against shooting photos or videos so do your homework in advance. Be sure to check out Arin Sang-urai’s photos from this prank to see images of the hidden cameras Improv Everywhere used.

Could the Group have been Arrested for Disturbing the Peace?
Probably not. The group didn’t excessively disrupt the store. I would say the employee did when they called 911. There didn’t appear to be any problems while the police were sorting out what was going on and most people, if not everyone, was smiling by the end.

Could the Group be Banned from the Gap?
Sure. The store has the right to refuse service to anyone. The have the prerogative to ban problematic patrons. This banning would likely only apply to that particular store, not every Gap, and probably it wouldn’t preclude them from shopping at the Gap online. If anyone was banned from the store, and they entered the premises after the banning began, then they would be trespassing. Some of the members of Improv AZ ran into this problem when we were banned from a mall for three months following the Coroner Prank 2.

Please check out Arin Sang-urai’s photos from The Mannequin Mob. They’re outstanding.

If you have any questions about the legalities of flash mobs, pranks, or any type of guerilla marketing, feel free to contact me. If you want a resource about the legal dos and don’ts about these topics, please check out my book, Flash Mob Law.

You can also connect with me on TwitterGoogle+FacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, and you can subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

See You In Austin!

Orange Appeal by JD Hancock from Flickr

Orange Appeal by JD Hancock from Flickr

As many of you know, I’m going to Austin this week to attend and speak at the South by Southwest conference (SXSW or “South by”). I’m so excited!

For those of you who don’t know, SXSW is a huge conference that features three track – film, music, and interactive. The interactive track is all about technology and social media.  That’s the track I’m attending. There are way more sessions than any person can attend and there’s so many opportunities to meet and hang out with awesome people in general that I’m going to probably be busy from morning ‘til night every day.

I’m super excited to go to the sessions on entrepreneurship, privacy, marketing, stopping bullying, and of course, the legal sessions. I will have the pleasure and honor of speaking about Protecting Your Copyrights In Digital Media. I’m going to talk about what your copyright rights are and your possible courses of action when someone steals your content. I’m part of the Future 15 program so I only get 12 minutes to give my talk. It’s going to be awesome.

My shirts for SXSW

My shirts for SXSW

There are so many people I hope to meet while I’m in Austin – Gary Vaynerchuk, Chris Guillebeau, the guys from Deadliest Catch, and of course, my fellow legal eagles. Another person I want to meet is Charlie Todd, the founder of Improv Everywhere. He’s debuting his film about Improv Everywhere called We Cause Scenes. I can’t wait to see it.

And will someone please remind me to do a handstand in front of a big SXSW sign or display? I need to add that picture to my collection. I don’t know if I’ll have time to see the giant longhorn statue on the University of Texas campus, but that would be fun too.

A very special thank you goes out to the crew at Brand X Custom T-shirts in Tempe, AZ who did a beautiful job creating my t-shirts for SXSW.