Ridiculous Laws: Consequences of Keeping Antiquated and Unenforced Laws on the Books

Photo by Federico Artusi on Unsplash

Mallory Perazzo, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

I. Introduction

Ridiculous laws that still exist in the United State have recently become a hot topic.  For example, visit stupidlaws.com and, as the name suggests, you can read all about the most popular outlandish and outdated laws.  Follow A Crime a Day on Twitter for a daily article on an absurd law that most people have never heard of.  Or see any of the countless blogs, sites, and books dedicated to this topic. 

While these laws may seem harmless and entertaining, they may also have negative consequences, such as providing law enforcement with an unbalanced amount of power, undermining the legal system, and inhibiting innovation.  Unfortunately, the remedy to this problem is unclear.

II. Background

Some very strange and arbitrary laws exist from state to state.[1]  For example, in North Dakota, one needs permission to exterminate a pigeon.[2]  In North Carolina, it is illegal to hold a meeting while wearing a costume.[3]  It is illegal to sit down or lie down on a public sidewalk in Reno, Nevada.[4]  In Mississippi, it is a crime to have more than one illegitimate child.[5]  In Maine, dancing is prohibited at an establishment that sells liquor unless it has a special permit.[6]  Wrestling a bear is banned in Louisiana.[7]  There are no reptiles allowed in religious services in Kentucky.[8]  In Chicago, it’s illegal to sell or display birds that have been dyed or otherwise artificially colored.[9]  In Georgia, eating fried chicken with a fork is against the law.[10]  In Mobile, Alabama, it’s illegal to keep, store, use, or sell silly string.[11]  In Alaska, it is illegal to get drunk in bars.[12]  In Florida, a restaurant owner may be fined up to $1,000 if they participate in or permit a dwarf tossing competition.[13]  Kansas prohibits shooting rabbits from motorboats.[14]  The list goes on, and each state, as well as many cities, have obsolete laws like these.

III. Discussion

These types of laws are entertaining to read and talk about, but they may also have negative consequences. Most of these laws are outdated and either largely unenforced or completely unnecessary.  For example, most people probably do not need a law to prevent them from intentionally wrestling a bear, and it is unlikely that the criminal system will need to punish those that do violate the rule. 

The existence of largely unenforced laws creates the potential for law enforcement to abuse their power and causes a lack of respect for laws by the public.  There are so many of these types of laws that it is impossible to know them all, so law enforcement officials choose which ones are important and which are not, making certain laws much more recognizable and impactful for citizens.[15]  This choice by law enforcement disturbs the separation of powers, allowing police officers to legislate to a certain extent.  Most importantly, no matter how nonsensical some of these laws may sound, they still carry the full force of the law, which means someone committing a seemingly harmless act, such as sitting down on a sidewalk in Nevada, may be prosecuted as a criminal.  Furthermore, unenforced laws may be problematic because non-compliance may undermine the rule of law and lead to the popular belief that laws are carried out in inconsistent and biased ways.[16] 

An illustration of this abuse of power is seen in Society of Good Neighbors v. Van Antwerp.  In that case, the Detroit Police developed a prejudicial attitude toward a Bingo game that a local relief organization had been conducting for several years.[17]  The prejudice stemmed from personal animosity and political difference between the group and city officials.[18]  The Detroit Police’s investigation for the purpose of prosecuting the organization was technically valid under a Michigan lottery law, but the organization alleged that the law was otherwise unenforced and that, although many other organizations were operating lotteries in Detroit at the time, they were being singled out for personal reasons.[19]  Unlike what happened in Detroit, consistent enforcement of a practical law should be the only viable way to build a person’s a criminal record. 

Another potential problem with unenforced and antiquated laws is that they may prevent innovation.  Due to our over criminalized society, innovators and entrepreneurs may risk becoming criminals when they try something new.  For example, in the 1970s California banned motorized skateboards due to concerns that they created heavy air and noise pollution.[20]  Recently, electronic skateboards have become an environmentally friendly and efficient way to travel.  That meant that California had to endure a lengthy legislative process to legalize the use of electric skateboards; in the meantime, the growth of the industry was stifled in that state.[21]  

Scholars and legislators have recommended a number of solutions to this problem, but it seems that governments hesitate to adopt them for practical reasons.  The first such recommendation is to elect politicians that will sort through the criminal code for needless and obsolete laws.[22]  However, this takes time and resources that are already scarce, especially when repealing a law can be more difficult than passing one.[23] 

Another common suggestion is to use some form of a sunset regulation, which would allow laws to expire without going through the lengthy process of repealing them.  One way to do that would be to put a sunset provision into new laws to create an expiration date for the law unless elected officials vote to extend it.[24]  Another way this might work would be to create a sunset commission where citizens recommend overhauls of specific statutes or identify which statutes should expire.[25]  While sunset laws have been used in the past, they are controversial because the result has generally been that they are the catalyst for very little change.[26]  Unfortunately, the best solution to minimize the number of antiquated laws on the books remains undetermined.   

IV. Conclusion

It may be worth foregoing the fun conversation about which state has the most ridiculous old rules in order to narrow down the laws that are on the books to those that are enforceable and logical.  It is necessary to continue to discover solutions to the problems that obsolete laws present, including inconsistent application of and diminished respect for the law. 

[1] See Caroline Simon, Weirdest Laws Passed in Every State, USA Today (2018), https://www.usatoday.com/list/news/nation-now/weirdest-laws-every-state/53ad0541-3518-4432-adc4-0fec193d389e/.

[2] N.D. Cent. Code §11-1001. 

[3] N.C. Gen. Stat. §14-12.10. 

[4] Reno, Nev. Code §8.12.015. 

[5] Miss. Code Ann. § 96-29-11. 

[6] Me. Stat. tit. 28-A, §1054. 

[7] La. Rev. Stat §14:102.10. 

[8] Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. §437.060. 

[9] Simon, supra note 1. 

[10] Id.

[11] Mobile, Ala., Code §39-15 (1994).

[12] Outdated & Weird Laws You Can Still Be Charged With, The Law Dictionary, https://thelawdictionary.org/article/weird-laws-by-state/.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Michael Van Beek, Ridiculous Laws are a Symptom of America’s Overcriminalization Problem, The Hill (Mar. 4, 2020), https://thehill.com/opinion/criminal-justice/484928-ridiculous-laws-are-symptom-of-americas-overcriminalization-problem

[16] Ben Depoorter & Stephan Tontrup, The Cost of Unenforced Laws: A Field Experiment, N.Y.U. (Sept. 15, 2016), http://www.law.nyu.edu/sites/default/files/upload_documents/Tontrup,%20The%20Costs%20of%20Unenforced%20Laws%20L%20&%20E%20Workshop%202016.9.21.pdf; Beek, supra note 15. 

[17] Discriminatory Law Enforcement and Equal Protection from the Law, Yale L.J. 354, 355-56 (1950). 

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Adrian Moore, How to Get Dumb, Obsolete Laws Off the Books, Reason Foundation (Apr. 27, 2015), https://reason.org/commentary/how-to-get-dumb-obsolete-laws-off-t/

[21] Id.

[22] Beek, supra note 15. 

[23] Philip K. Howard, Obsolete Law- The Solutions, The Atlantic (Mar. 30, 2012), https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/03/obsolete-law-0151-the-solutions/255141/.

[24] Moore, supra note 20. 

[25] Howard, supra note 23. 

[26] Vern McKinley, Sunrises Without Sunsets: Can Sunset Laws Reduce Regulation?, Cato Institute 57.