Unusual Laws in America


America is awash in laws. In addition to federal and state laws, most cities and counties have a set of ordinances that govern particular issues faced by small municipalities. As a result, Americans have thousands of laws they must comply with.

The process for passing laws is usually fairly uniform. A representative body, such as the U.S. Congress, state legislature, county commission, or city council, considers proposals for new laws. Comments are sought and the proposals are debated. At the end of the debate, the legislators vote on the proposal.

If the proposal passes, it becomes a law that is binding on all residents in that jurisdiction. For example, if a city passes an ordinance, it is binding in that city, but would not be binding in a different city.

Why Are Unusual Laws in America Passed?

Unusual laws in America are passed for a few reasons:

  • Legislative bodies sometimes pass statement legislation that announces its position on a policy even though the law might not be valid or enforceable. For example, a city could outlaw spitting as a statement against messy sidewalks, even though the law would be impossible to enforce.
  • Lawmakers are often faced with very specific problems that might not be encountered anywhere else. For example, a county with a major lake in its borders might have many more water safety ordinances than a county in the desert.
  • Elected officials are responsive to political pressure from voters. A local event, such as a crash caused by street racing, might prompt a city to pass very specific ordinances aimed at stopping street racing that might seem odd or unusual without knowing the context.

Unusual Laws in America About Littering

Litter and trash have long been an area of concern for cities and counties. Although the goal of reducing waste and creating a clean environment for residents, anti-littering efforts have led to some unusual laws in America.

For example, in Mobile, Alabama, you might need an attorney if you throw a party with confetti. In Mobile, the police can cite you for selling, using, or giving away non-biodegradable confetti.

Likewise, a law that went into effect in Illinois in 2014 makes it illegal to toss cigarette butts out of a car window onto the roadway. In addition to reducing litter, the law was intended to reduce the risk of brush fires.

Another area where trash concerns have led to some unusual laws in America is plastic bags. Eight states, California, Hawaii, New York, Vermont, Oregon, Maine, Delaware, and Connecticut, have banned plastic bags. Many cities, such as Santa Fe, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, and Boulder, have required retailers to impose plastic bag fees to encourage shoppers to bring reusable bags to the store. Although they impose a burden on shoppers to remember their reusable bags, studies show that these bans are already preventing somewhere between 28 and 40 million pounds of plastic from entering the world’s landfills every year.

Unusual Laws in America About Safety

Another area where local governments legislate is safety. Federal and state laws often leave gaps in their coverage that local governments fill in with laws targeted to improve safety. However, these efforts often produce some unusual laws in America.

For example, in Mobile, Alabama, you might need a bail bonds service to get you out of jail if you spit or throw fruit skins on the sidewalk. Laws like the one in Mobile are not unusual. During the early 1900s, banana peels were a safety hazard on the sidewalks of many U.S. cities, which led to the image in cartoons of someone slipping on a banana peel.

In Southington, Connecticut, smoke bombs and Silly String used during parades nearly caused two police officers to lose control of their vehicles. As a result, the city passed a ban on Silly String and smoke bombs that is enforced with a $99 fine.

Although snowball fights are legal in Rexburg, police can cite snowballers for injuring a person or damaging property with a snowball. The lesson from this unusual law is that the law sets a very fine line between fun and criminal when it comes to dangerous activities like throwing snowballs, so snowballers should be very careful.

Unusual Laws in America About Food

Local and state governments pass laws about food all the time. Some of the reasons these laws are passed include:

  • Food safety: All levels of government, from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to city and county health inspectors, regulate food safety. While most laws are sensible, a few unusual laws have been passed to address specific problems. For example, Mississippi has a criminal law that prohibits the sale of cat meat as food. Similarly, an urban legend says that South Dakota has a law against sleeping in a cheese factory. In fact, South Dakota has an administrative regulation that prohibits a food establishment from having sleeping and living quarters unless they are separated by a partition or self-closing doors to maintain food safety.
  • Labeling: Many jurisdictions have food labeling laws to ensure customers know what is in the food they purchase and consume. For example, Delaware has a law against selling margarine without identifying it as margarine (presumably so a customer does not mistake it for butter). In Miami Beach, Florida, ordinances outlaw the selling of food at open-air markets due to food safety concerns.
  • Alcohol consumption: When it comes to alcohol-related accidents, many jurisdictions focus on prevention. For example, in Wyoming, skiing while drunk could get your arrested. Similarly, you might need a lawyer who practices criminal defense law if you are intoxicated and riding with a drunk driver.
  • Protectionism: Some food laws can only be explained by a desire of the state or local government to protect an important industry. For example, Wisconsin is known for its dairy industry. The dairy industry in Wisconsin is so important that a restaurant cannot legally serve butter substitutes like margarine unless the customer requests them. Similarly, Oklahoma has a law against sharing hamburgers because bar and restaurant owners convinced legislators that everyone must buy their own hamburger.

Unusual Laws in America About Divorce

Lawyers who practice family law see some emotionally-draining cases. They also run into some of the most unusual laws in America.

Many states have a very old school view of marriage and divorce. This is exhibited through their laws that encourage couples to remain together, even when they want to divorce.

For example, many states have laws that only permit divorce upon a showing of cause. While some of these states allow divorces simply by showing irreconcilable differences, some states provide oddly narrow grounds for divorce. Thus, in Tennessee, attempted murder with malice is a grounds for seeking a divorce. But violence short of murder or attempted murder without malice do not appear to be sufficient for divorce in Tennessee.

Similarly, state laws take an old-fashioned view of fidelity. For example, many states allow divorce for adultery and bigamy and New York allows a person to sue their ex-spouse’s lover for destroying their marriage.

Other unusual legal situations have developed because family laws have been slow to catch up with current events. Although same-sex marriage is legal in every state, some states have not updated their divorce laws to include same-sex divorces. Presumably, a divorce attorney could ask that a judge apply the same rules to same-sex couples, but in some states, this would not be automatic.

Unusual Laws in America About Driving

Some of the laws people encounter most often relate to driving. While some laws, like speeding, using directional signals, and yielding to oncoming traffic are universal, some states have unusual driving laws. For example, Oregon’s statutes prohibit leaving the side doors open on a car parked on the side of the road. The intent of the statute was to prevent a parked car from creating a traffic hazard from vehicles and bicycles forced to swerve around the open doors.

Some traffic laws are perfectly sensible but might cause you to wonder why they had to be written. For example, in Arizona, driving in reverse on a roadway could get you a ticket. Similarly, you may need a law firm to represent you if you violate Alabama law by driving blindfolded. In North Carolina, you can be cited for playing in traffic, and in Nevada, camels are prohibited from highways.

Finally, there are traffic laws that are intended to prevent traffic deaths. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, nearly 34,000 Americans died in motor vehicle accidents in 2014. Many states take a rigorous approach to preventing these tragedies. For example, Kansas not only prohibits street racing but also prohibits burnouts — also referred to as peeling out — a maneuver used to heat up the tires before street racing.

Similarly, Maryland seeks to reduce road rage incidents by prohibiting drivers from audibly swearing at each other. Violation of this Maryland law can result in a $100 fine and up to 90 days in jail.

Unusual Laws in America About Buildings

The building codes adopted by many states have very exacting requirements that might seem unusual. While contractors are trained to observe all these details during construction, a do-it-yourselfer might run afoul of the building codes and need a construction law attorney to get the project back into compliance.

Some examples of unusual building codes include:

  • Permits: In many jurisdictions, a building permit is required for almost every building project, from fences to detached barns and sheds. Some of the quirks in these laws come from the exemptions from building permit requirements. For example, in many jurisdictions, a permit is not required to build a chicken coop while other jurisdictions only require permits for chicken coops larger than a specified size.
  • Green buildings: While some eco-friendly practices should be encouraged and applauded, the building codes have been slow to incorporate rules governing green practices. For example, capturing rainwater is legal in most jurisdictions but may be regulated by the state or local government that limits the amount captured or how it can be used. Similarly, water recycling is highly regulated and will likely limit how and where you can use recycled water.
  • Building materials: Building codes restrict the materials that can be used in residential and commercial construction. These restrictions are often put into place to ensure that the materials are non-toxic and structurally sound. However, building codes vary widely, with materials approved in some jurisdictions disapproved in other jurisdictions. This occurs most frequently in areas that are prone to certain types of natural disasters, like hurricanes and earthquakes, where different materials are needed to withstand them.

Unusual Laws in America About Businesses

Another field where local jurisdictions can legislate is the regulation of businesses and professions. Some more common motivations for legislating about professions include:

  • Consumer protection: Some laws are directed to ensure that consumers are protected from scams. For example, many local and state jurisdictions prohibit unlicensed gambling to reduce the risks of customers being targeted by cheats and loan sharks. However, the city of Richmond and many states with strict gambling laws like Utah and Hawaii would even outlaw flipping a coin to decide who pays for lunch or coffee.
  • Adulterated products: Many states have oddly specific laws to protect consumers from dangerous or counterfeit products. For example, Delaware has a law against the sale of dog or cat hair, both as stuffing but also as artificial fur.
  • Licensing: Some state laws are designed to ensure that a business’s staff is trained and qualified. But while the licensing requirements for a law office might be well-known, many other business owners might be surprised by their licensing requirements. For example, in Texas, a computer repair technician must be licensed as a private investigator. And in Pennsylvania, home-based businesses, like bloggers, must have a business license and pay the business licensing fee.

Unusual Laws in America About Property

Property laws are considered some of the oldest laws. Property laws define the ownership rights of property and the way those rights are conveyed to other owners. However, property laws are also a prime area for local regulation because cities and counties use property laws to maintain their area’s local character.

For example, Waldron Island, a small island in Washington, prohibits homes from having more than one toilet so that all homes retain the small-town feeling. Similarly, Ridgeland, Mississippi does not allow homeowners to install security bars over the outside of windows, and Walnut, California does not allow homeowners to store gravel, sand, or dirt on their property.

Some property laws only apply to landlords. For example, in Ohio and Massachusetts, landlords are required to pay their tenants interest on their security and rent deposits. Similarly, in Oregon and Maryland, people who have moved into your property can only be removed through legal cases of eviction, even if the people are squatters.

The U.S. has many unusual laws. Most are well-intentioned, even if they are a little bit strange. However, as long as they carry out their intended purposes, these laws are a legitimate exercise of governmental power.

This creates something of a minefield for people who want to comply with the law, but might not be aware of some of the obscure laws. Just be sure to research laws before making a major commitment, such as buying property or starting a business.

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