We’ve all heard about the dumb laws that no one has scrubbed from the books yet. In NYC, it’s illegal to throw a ball at someone’s face, sell your pet’s hair, flirt, hang your clothes to dry outside, or take a selfie with a tiger. Most of these wacky legislative overreaches don’t result in arrests, but what about the ones that do? What should you do if you find yourself in hot water with the police after breaking an old law no one even knew still existed? Here’s the long and short of it.
An 1897 Michigan law — still on the books, of course — says you cannot curse when women or children are around to hear the foul language. In 1998 someone was arrested for breaking this law. He fought it in court and lost. His penalty? A $75 fine and four days community service. Maybe the guy was lucky: he could have spent about 90 days locked away for the criminal offense. But what makes this worse isn’t just the absurdity of the law — it’s that there were mitigating circumstances.
And what would those be, you ask?
Well, seconds before the man began to utter the foul language, he had overturned his canoe along the Rifle River in Michigan. The water was cold, and the experience was sure to be shocking. Who wouldn’t curse in that situation?
And yet a jury still convicted him of the strange crime. Thankfully, the man appealed the case and Judge William Murphy of the Michigan Court of Appeals overturned the conviction in 2002. Murphy wrote: “Allowing a prosecution where one utters ‘insulting’ language could possibly subject a vast percentage of the populace to misdemeanor conviction. We find it unquestionable that [the law], as drafted, reaches constitutionally protected speech, and it operates to inhibit the exercise of First Amendment rights.
Although this man was eventually let off the hook, it speaks to the reality of our broken criminal justice system, and exemplifies the many changes that must be made for it to work fairly for everyone instead of just a chosen few. It also conveys the importance of erasing old laws, because at the end of the day, juries are instructed to base their verdict on the law and not on their own conscience or perception of morals.
In other words the law determines the difference between legal and illegal, but not the difference between right and wrong in the modern era. If you are arrested, you need to find yourself a qualified criminal defense lawyer whether you feel you did wrong or not.