In late June, a middle-aged man driving a truck in suburban Houston saw an unmarked police car behind him turn on its lights.
The driver pulled into a strip mall, handed over his license, and stepped out to be frisked. But the cop, a young man in a T-shirt with a badge on a chain around his neck, was holding a selfie stick.
Another officer burst out of the car.
“Is that a weapon?” he said, looking into the truck-bed before turning back to the driver. “Hey, hey, hey, hands back up on the car!”
These weren’t real cops. Instead, the truck driver had been pulled over by a car filled with YouTube pranksters, making him the latest victim of a “pull-over prank.”
Pull-over pranks are a risky YouTube genre in which jokers put police-style lights on their cars and impersonate police for laughs and views. The man who first approached the truck driver and took his driver’s license, for example, was Chris Sails, a YouTube celebrity with more than nearly 3 million subscribers on the site.
“It’s a prank, man!” YouTuber Nyyear Price yelled at the truck driver, before the pranksters dove back into their car and drove away. The resulting videos of the stunt have garnered nearly 300,000 views on the site.
But this time, law enforcement isn’t taking “it’s a prank, bro” as a defense. Last week, police arrested the Sails, Price, and two other pranksters involved in the bogus traffic stop, charging them all with impersonating a police officer.
Despite the risks involved with impersonating police and confronting random motorists, pull-over pranks have proved to be a reliable YouTube genre. All it takes is shamelessness and a pair of police lights, which are available for roughly $100 online.
Most pull-over pranks target someone the prankster already knows, usually a sibling or a friend. That limits the chance that their victims will call the actual police.
Still, the threat of being caught by police is omnipresent for the YouTube personalities willing to risk felony charges for content.
“If a cop sees me doing this, I’m going to get handcuffed and I’m going to go to jail,” YouTube personality David Vlas, who has more than 1.6 million subscribers and has filmed two pull-over pranks, worries in one video as he prepares to pull over his friend.
The Houston pranksters, whose other pranks tend to less risky, domestic “caught cheating” type stunts, appear to have made the mistake of pulling over strangers who were actually willing to complain to the police.
The Houston video features several tense confrontations. One driver, after being followed by blocks for the fake cops, turns his truck around and prepares to charge them. Another man, who says he has a warrant out for his arrest, worries that the pranksters were going to shoot him.
YouTube prank culture is riddled with fakery, so it’s hard to know how much is real in pull-over prank videos. The Houston video, for example, ends with an over-the-top scene in which an angry driver throws one YouTuber against his car, then chases the rest of the crew with a handgun.
But the videos were apparently real enough to justify the criminal charges, which carry a maximum ten-year prison sentence for each of the YouTube personalities.
The Houston pranksters can’t say they weren’t warned. One man they pull over points out that there was a police station just a few blocks from their DIY traffic stop: “You guys are fucking crazy for doing this.”