I recently came very close to having a new hero. His name is Rich Smith, which sounds suspiciously like an alias, and he claims to be an unrepentant criminal. In fact, he has a website (http://www.randomhouse.com/crown/youcangetarrestedforthat) documenting with indisputable photographic evidence, a 'crime spree' in which he and his accomplice, one (Tadadadadadada) Bateman, luridly travelled the United States just so Smith could fragrantly violate ordinances... oh... and promote his new book about stupid laws, titled You can get arrested for that?
At first I was overcome with envy. He had done exactly what I had thought about doing nearly 30 years ago: deliberately going about the country, breaking laws that made no sense or were so arcane they had no purpose for existing anymore; like the one requiring all taxis to be equipped with spittoons. My intentions were a bit nobler than his, I think, because I had no book to sell and no profit motive. Inspired by Emerson and Thoreau, I simply hoped I could help America reform its legal system and get mindless nonsense out of our penal code. By trying as publicly as possible to coerce law enforcement officials to enforce laws that had no business being enforced, and getting the pre-Internet Age media of the time to broadcast my civil disobedience over television and radio, perhaps lawmakers would have to clean up their collective act.
In other words, if I made police officers arrest me for violating an ordinance they would look idiotic arresting me for, it would bring attention to the fact that too many laws exist because:
A: Silly proscriptions generated by cronyism, loud complaints to a legislator or outright bribery too often get slipped surreptitiously into larger bills that have otherwise important, sensible and practical language, and
B: Most lawmakers don't take time to actually read most of the legislation they vote for in the first place.
In my idealistic dreams I had envisioned starting a movement of civil disobedience aimed at seeking out and embarrassing the public servants who had let us all down by burdening our legal system with intellectual vacuity. If enough of us kept breaking laws that couldn't bear the scrutiny of even modest media attention, I thought, then lawmakers and law enforcement would need to work together feverishly to clean out senseless legislative clutter.
But then, as I was scanning a second time through Mr. Smith's photo album, I suddenly froze in shock. Under the caption, 'It is illegal in Globe, AZ to play cards with a Native American,' was a snapshot of Smith playing Snap with an American Indian named Arden at the Drift Inn on Broad Street, just off Highway 60. I've been there. It was the second entry in the list so I should have seen it the first time, but for some reason I missed it.
I knew that law. I mean I knew that wasn't a law. I mean I knew that 'law' was merely an urban legend.
Now it is very possible that at one time or another it actually was illegal to play poker with Apaches and Navajos in Globe way back in Arizona's territorial days, I won't dispute that point. I honestly don't know and neither does Globe's city clerk. For generations many of Arizona's American Native tribes have had to deal with problems related to alcohol and gambling among tribe members, so I could imagine a scenario where a local tribe encouraged town officials to crack down on whites that were taking advantage of those weaknesses to drain tribe members of their paychecks.
But what I do know with certainty is that both Snopes.com and a local television station in Phoenix have investigated a collection of so-called 'dumb laws' that were supposedly still on the books in Arizona according to popular lists circulating on the internet, and found that none of them were indeed active laws, and moreover that in most cases there was no written record that any such law ever existed.
Globe's proscription against card games with American Indians was one of them. And Rich Smith had it wrong anyway. The urban legend was that it was 'illegal to play cards in the street with a Native American,' so playing Snap inside the Drift Inn wouldn't have qualified. But the city clerk's office had searched their records thoroughly and as far as they could tell the 'dumb law' was purely fictional.
The same was true of the 'law' that it is illegal to hunt camels in Arizona. It is true that the U.S. Army brought camels to the territorial southwest before the Civil War and that after the project of creating a Camel Corps got sidelined and the camels were set loose, sightings of feral camels were reported as late as the 1950's. But a year after Arizona became a state in 1912, Arizona camels were officially declared to be extinct. So any pre-statehood law that obviously failed in its objective of saving camels would have been void on two counts.
Likewise, the 'state law' that makes any misdemeanor committed while wearing a red mask a felony is either a hoax or so antiquated it can't be found in law books. And the same goes for the 'local statutes' that in Tucson it is illegal for ladies to wear pants and in Nogales it is illegal to wear suspenders.
I decided to check whether any of the 'laws' Mr. Smith 'broke' in other states were real or not, and hit another dud on the very first one; the 'ordinance' in Los Angeles proscribing the peeling of oranges in hotel rooms. A rather irritated Los Angeles attorney had checked the penal code and come up empty. That was all I needed to see. Obviously, Mr. Smith never bothered to check any of the so called 'laws' he taunted so fragrantly. But my search also showed me that Rich Smith is not alone in his lack of ethical thoroughness. Every site I searched for lists of 'stupid laws' contained examples like camel hunting and orange peeling that have been proven to be false.
Even DumbLaws.com has them. Yes there is a nice feature for citing the actual text of a statute, but most of the 'laws' listed don't include citations, and all of the classic phony 'laws' are there. At least on the site's home page (http://www.dumblaws.com) the webmaster has the decency to include the following disclaimer (which I will reprint in the exact same font size as it appeared on my computer):
Remember, many of the laws on this site have been verified, but many have been taken from sources which do not include law citations. The law shave been taken from newsgroups, websites, city governments, and visitors to the site. Keep in mind that this is an entertainment site, we wouldn't recommend using our laws as evidence in court, unless you'd like the judge to laugh you into jail!
I guess there needs to be a law against 'dumb laws' that don't exist.