What are the authoritative resources for knowing what local laws are?
July 12, 2013 11:46 PM   Subscribe

For instance, I know that in some states it is legal to park on the "wrong" side of the street (i.e., the subjective left side), and in some states it is illegal. Other laws that differ from state to state include smoking laws, gun laws, phone recording laws, etc. How would I go about determining what laws are actually in effect in a given place (in this country), without resorting to something as unofficial and possibly unreliable as Wikipedia or question-and-answer websites?
posted by CustooFintel to Law & Government (16 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
In most developed countries the various levels of government have a presence on the Internet. For example, in my area, I would look at the levels that have jurisdiction such as municipal, regional, provincial, and federal government sites. This does assume a certain depth of understanding of jurisdiction (so, for example I know marriage laws are a provincial affair). A basic book on Government (especially one aimed at kids) from the local library would help. They then list all the laws. In Canada we also have a repository of laws and statutes called CANLII.org, I imagine most countries have something similar.
posted by saucysault at 12:01 AM on July 13, 2013

In the USA, you can usually visit City and County and State and Federal websites. You're looking for top-level-domains named .gov and .us (or the dot-country-code for the relevant country). You're looking for 'Municipal Codes' and 'Laws & Regulations' and that sort of thing. Lots of places call it different things, so keep an eye out.
posted by carsonb at 12:09 AM on July 13, 2013

Lots of times what you're looking for winds up being a PDF that's hosted on a legal site or library site or just there for you to download from the government website.
posted by carsonb at 12:11 AM on July 13, 2013

Justia provides access to all state laws. It includes links to some municipalities' codes as well, via Municode.
posted by Snerd at 4:12 AM on July 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

The above suggestions will lead you to the primary law - statutes, ordinances - which will often be dense, and what you find will be hit and miss. Ordinary search sites for items of particular interest will often provide information in narrow areas, but not comprehensive information. Examples: Traffic laws in Kentucky, age of consent laws in the U.S.
posted by yclipse at 4:13 AM on July 13, 2013

How would I go about determining what laws are actually in effect in a given place (in this country)

You consult the appropriate sources of legal authority, i.e., statutes, regulations, and ordinances. Statues are laws passed by legislatures. Regulations are rules promulgated and enforced by regulatory agencies. Ordinances are--broadly speaking--laws passed by municipal governments via a variety of methods depending on how they're constituted. You might also have to make reference to case law, as the judiciary is involved in interpreting and occasionally striking down other sorts of laws.

So, for example, parking laws? Almost exclusively local. Smoking? Combination of state and local. Same goes for guns. Recording is a combination of state and federal. Which governments are going to have laws about which subjects is arguably a matter of constitutional law (state and federal), but practically speaking it's just a matter of experience. You get to know which kinds of issues are more likely to be discussed by which kinds of government. And just because a particular kind of government isn't allowed to have laws on a particular subject won't necessarily stop them from trying.

As an attorney, if someone asked me what the law is on a particular point, I'd first identify which level of government is likely to have laws on point, then consult their resources to see what the state of the law is. Sometimes this would involve consulting primary sources of law, but sometimes you can get most of it done by consulting the website of the appropriate governmental entity. They'll frequently have a plain-English explanation for you.

Ordinary search sites for items of particular interest will often provide information in narrow areas, but not comprehensive information.

True, but in my experience many of these sites are inaccurate. Occasionally they're just plain wrong. More commonly, they're just out of date. The law is constantly evolving as new laws are created and old ones repealed. Websites of this sort rarely keep up with the current state of affairs.
posted by valkyryn at 5:36 AM on July 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yeah, this will be tough for you. For example, in Minnesota you'd start at the state level, with the Office of the Revisor of Statutes. For reference, printed out books of the MN statutes will run you around $200 and are about 4" thick. None of it is light reading, and merely reading straight through the book wouldn't actually give you a great understanding of anything. You have to pick a particular statute and read through it, read through all of its applicable definitions, and try to arrange all the puzzle pieces in your head. For instance, check out the definition of roadway:
Subd. 68.Roadway. "Roadway" means that portion of a highway improved, designed, or ordinarily used for vehicular travel, exclusive of the sidewalk or shoulder. During periods when the commissioner allows the use of dynamic shoulder lanes as defined in subdivision 25, roadway includes that shoulder. In the event a highway includes two or more separate roadways, the term "roadway" as used herein shall refer to any such roadway separately but not to all such roadways collectively.
After that, you'd be poking around the various city websites (or probably just calling city hall) to find ordinances.
posted by kavasa at 5:39 AM on July 13, 2013

Many cities, towns and counties have contracted out the production of their municipal codes. There are a couple of companies that specialize in creating them and their websites are a good place to start.

The big 2 are:

General Code

there's another one but it's slipping my mind at the moment. As mentioned above you can also usually find these on official local government websites.

Another good place to start is to find an online research guide created by a law library in whatever state you are interested in. They will tell you what the official sources are.
posted by interplanetjanet at 7:36 AM on July 13, 2013

We get people coming into the public library sometimes asking us "Where are your legal books" and while we do have access to state statues and such, it's really not a good way to learn the laws enough to actually feel like you can remain within them, for example. It's sort of not possible to know "all the laws" but it's often possible to find either legal aid or advocacy type sites that have good layperson's summaries for things like landlord/tenant law or the status of gay marriage in the state. However these are often subject based so they're not really effective for broad overviews. A few other examples

- road atlases often have decently up to date information about things like speed limits, whether you can sleep at a rest stop in a given state or whether "right on red" is legal.
- hobbyists keep some wikipedia pages like gun laws by state pretty well updated and also well-cited, you might also be interested in their other state related lists which are of varying quality but notable ones are smoking laws and alcohol laws. Again these are better for links to sources than a source of information, but they have good citations usually.
- State library websites often have links to public records and sometimes public legal information but this can vary
posted by jessamyn at 7:41 AM on July 13, 2013

It's not authoritative but one thing I'll do is strike up a conversation with a bored but friendly looking police officer doing security at street fairs and ask them about the local regulations. That information could be useful in knowing where to look for an authoritative source.
posted by Candleman at 9:48 AM on July 13, 2013

I once did just what Candleman suggests--politely asked a parking enforcement woman why she was writing tickets for some cars parked near a school one weekend, and at first she was sort of put off, then she paused, realized the cars were actually not violating any law, and was so grateful to me for striking up a conversation so that she didn't end up writing incorrect tickets. It was quite gratifying really.

As others have said, the laws really don't seem to be aggregated in one place. But try limiting a search query to certain domains and you'll get useful returns. For example "parking on the wrong side of the street site:gov" returns a bunch of useful results for me. But also remember some localities use org for their domain names, so substituting "site:org" for "site:gov" also gives useful results (e.g. West Hartford and Little Rock show up on my first page with site:org).

This may not give you places where such a thing is legal, but you might be able to get creative in a search to turn up places where certain things are allowed.
posted by gubenuj at 10:21 AM on July 13, 2013

Poke around on the local municipal website, too. As an example, the city-wide traffic and parking regulations (including which intersections are no-left-turn and other exact details) for Somerville, MA, are online and I found them via the city's website.
posted by rmd1023 at 10:26 AM on July 13, 2013

You might try searching for state, county and city "welcome to the neighborhood" types of flyers and websites.

Also, whatever agency in the state that puts out the rules of the road. That will get you a pretty significant chunk of the laws that are different.
posted by gjc at 12:42 PM on July 13, 2013

To support what others have said, I once wondered what "Speed Limit 25 MPH When Children Are Present" *really* means, and spent over an hour doing Web searching. At one point I found that the question had actually gone quite high in the NJ court system before it was decided by a combination of the judge and the Secretary of Transportation. IANAL.
posted by forthright at 1:09 PM on July 13, 2013

Along the same vein as gjc's suggestion, consider Welcome Wagon, Chamber of Commerce, and (if there's a large employer in the town) their New Employee's Guide.
posted by Jesse the K at 10:12 AM on July 14, 2013

Coincidentally, I just read something that reminded me about the National Conference of State Legislatures. They solve one of your problems--by providing as a relatively authoritative source legislation from all 50 states in one convenient spot in standard newspaper-level English--but they create another by not annotating their charts with the laws from each state (labor intensive, but the best way to track changes).

So, if you want a good place to start your research that isn't Wikipedia, I'd feel comfortable recommending the NCSL's Legislative Staff Bill Information Guides. Here's their fairly nifty database on traffic safety laws in all fifty states as an example (includes a multitude of things, from helmet laws to aggressive driving, to speed limits).
posted by librarylis at 6:49 PM on July 17, 2013

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