If a person gets arrested for breaking a strange and arcane law, do we blame his dumb behavior or the law?
There appear to be enough of both (weird laws and dumb people) to go around.
There’s also the issue of police discretion, widely used to take undesirable people off the streets, which some question when individuals are arrested for minor infractions like littering, failure to signal a turn when driving, or jaywalking. Sometimes people even get arrested for questioning a police officer’s authority to stop and question an individual on such grounds. If you doubt it happens, ask the Pennsylvania couple who were arrested and spent a month in jail because police suspected that two bars of soap in their possession was actually cocaine. It wasn’t. Another woman spent several weeks in jail because police believed a dirty spoon in her possession had drug residue on it but it turned out to be remnants of Spaghetti-Os, which is exactly what she told them.
Harvard Law Review says that Americans were charged with over 10 million misdemeanors in a recent year, offenses often so minor that they hardly merit the time and cost of processing an arrest, but which can stay on an individual’s record indefinitely. While a charge of littering or loitering can seem meaningless, when taken together a criminal prosecutor can make the argument that this behavior is constitutes habitual noncompliance and can be used to enhance a future felony punishment.
Arresting people for odd things and archaic laws can also give police an opportunity to search people they’re suspicious of. One man learned that when he was stopped by police who thought walking in his neighborhood at 2 a.m. was suspicious. When he refused to be searched by police, he was arrested for spitting on the sidewalk (he had chewing tobacco in his mouth). After the arrest police were free to search the man.
Legal or not?
When a woman in California was arrested for planting a piece of a human finger in a bowl of Chili from Wendy’s restaurant and suing the chain for allegedly discovering it there, she was charged with attempted grand larceny and filing a false police report, but not for misusing a body part – the severed finger that her husband’s coworker gave them. In Utah, such use of a body part could add to the charges, but not in California. In fact, in many parts of the country it’s perfectly legal to make money selling body parts but you can be arrested or fined or both for less significant acts.
Before we point fingers at other countries with arcane laws, Americans should examine our own books.
If you’re in California attending a jumping frog contest (as described in Mark Twain’s The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County short story) you may not eat the deceased competitors. But frog legs are on the menu elsewhere in the state, of course.
The origin of the prohibition on eating jumping frogs is unclear; it’s not as though California has a frog shortage. Nor does Arizona have a cacti shortage, but a young man was recently arrested for cutting a piece of a cactus off because certain species are protected.
As judges like to say, ignorance of the law is not an acceptable defense. But in the case of Arizona cacti, laws don’t always follow common sense. It’s even more interesting when people who lack common sense collide with oddball laws.
Florida Man’s popularity
The recent popularity of Florida Man stories test the credulity of some people’s actions, like throwing an alligator through a drive-up window at a fast food restaurant. For that caper, the man was charged both with attempted murder, because alligators are dangerous, and for illegal possession of an alligator, which is a felony. The episode begs the question why Florida even needs a law forbidding the possession of alligators, which are beasts that regularly chew the arms off people who get too close.
Don’t get the wrong idea about Florida, because everyone there isn’t behaving badly. In fact, socially-acceptable behavior is often codified in Florida, such as a bylaw in the town of Dunedin that requires residents to keep their lawns trimmed, measuring no taller than 10 inches. A man who recently let his lawn go last year (he says he’s disabled, retired, and on a fixed income) was fined $500 per day and may lose his house as a result of the accrued fines that now total over $30,000. He is countersuing, but of course could be arrested if he interferes with the foreclosure of his home.