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Pokemon Go: The Legal Implications

Pokemon Go: It’s Here And Law Enforcement Needs To Be Aware Of It

Stacked3Here is this week's Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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Pokemon Go: It’s Here And Law Enforcement Needs To Be Aware Of It

Pokemon Go. You’ve heard about it but likely have no idea what it is or why so many people are wandering around in circles in front of statues babbling about gyms, Pokestops, and “powering up.”

Here’s the low down. It’s an augmented reality smartphone app that was released in the United States a little over a week ago and since that time it’s been downloaded more than twice as many times as Tinder and its user numbers are quickly catching up to Twitter’s.

This app overlays an augmented map over your location and overlays the Pokemon world onto your own reality. This means as you stand on a street corner you can “see” Pokestops in front of stores, monuments, statues, and churches. When you walk to these locations you can obtain items that help you play the game more effectively. And Pokestops “refresh” approximately every 5 minutes, so you soon return to the Pokestop to obtain more items.

You can also see gyms, which are where people go in order to battle against other Pokemon teams (there are 3 teams: red, blue, and yellow) in order to claim the gym. You have to walk to the gym in order to battle.

There are also creatures called “Pokemon.” As you walk around, they will suddenly appear and you have to lob Pokeballs (which you obtain at the Pokestops) at the Pokemon in order to capture them. The goal is to capture, power up, and evolve as many Pokemon as possible and then battle them in the gyms. The map also indicates locations where Pokemon might be, so people tend to follow that trail in order to obtain more elusive Pokemon.

People also obtain Pokemon eggs, which incubate and won’t hatch until the player has walked at least 5 km - and sometimes 10 km. So the game encourages people to walk around - a lot.

The last piece of the puzzle that is relevant to this discussion is the ability to set up a “lure” in order to lure Pokemon to you for a 30 minute period. When players set up a lure at a Pokestop, the map shows that there is an active lure and everyone in the area gravitates toward the lure so that they can take advantage of the sudden influx of Pokemon and capture them.

So what is this game causing people to do? Walk around. A lot. And sometimes players will run onto the lawns of private homes or businesses in order to snag an elusive Pokemon. They are also gathering in groups, large and small, in public places at all times, day and night - such as where there are Pokestops, gyms, or when a lure is set. This often results in motley crews of people who might otherwise would not have a reason to stand around together: people young and old, people of different races and nationalities, and people from very different walks of life.

To the outside observer unfamiliar with the game, much of this activity can appear suspicious or even menacing. For example, when kids (some of whom are rather large high schoolers) run around neighborhoods and through yards, people become understandably fearful when they see what appears to be a large man lumbering through their backyard. I suspect that very behavior is what lead to a sheriff’s cruiser driving very slowly through my suburban neighborhood the other day.

Also suspicious to the outward eye are small groups of people in unusual circumstances who generally would not be seen together absent presumed unlawful intent. By way of example, a 50-year old white man shared online that he couldn’t sleep one night and was hunting Pokemon in the local park at 2 a.m. when two young black men who were also playing noticed him and they started talking about the game while sitting on a park bench. Shortly thereafter a police officer showed up, likely suspecting a drug deal. After much discussion they convinced him otherwise and even got him to download the app.

The sudden gathering of large groups of people in public places could also be viewed a threatening by local law enforcement unfamiliar with the phenomenon This is especially so in light of the recent protests occurring across the country.

The bottom line: law enforcement needs to be aware of this app, how it works, and the way that people using it behave in order to avoid misunderstandings that could unexpectedly escalate. I sent messages via Twitter early last week to both the Rochester Police Department and the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office to that effect. Neither responded to me.

Pokemon Go is catching on like wildfire. On a weeknight last week at 9 p.m., there were more than 30 people from all walks of life gathered near the library in the small village of Pittsford, New York after a lure was set. Central Park in New York City has been coined “Pokemon Central,” with reports of hundreds of people gathering near Pokestops and gyms at any given time. This is happening in cities, big and small, and the numbers will only increase over time.

My hope is that police departments locally and across the country get up to speed quickly. Pokemon Go may seem strange to the outside observer, but players shouldn’t be subjected to unnecessary police encounters due to ignorance on the part of law enforcement - especially when these types of encounters can sometimes go horribly wrong. So local law enforcement agencies, consider this a heads up: Pokemon Go has arrived. Learn about it, understand it, and police accordingly.

 

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase, intuitive web-based law practice management software for the modern law firm. She is also the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a West-Thomson treatise. She is the founder of lawtechTalk.com and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. She publishes four legal blogs and can be reached at niki@mycase.com.