What laws do non-criminals commonly break?
January 16, 2007 7:52 AM   Subscribe

What are some laws that people break often without thinking about it or that it would be easy to break without realizing you're committing a crime?

I'm writing a speech about the rule of law, and I want to point out to my audience that having a lot of laws on the books that are commonly broken or that outlaw things many people do routinely can undermine respect for the rule of law. To that end, I'm trying to demonstrate that a lot of otherwise law-abiding people either unknowingly or unthinkingly become "criminals" by engaging in common behavior that is illegal, but that they don't think is wrong. Examples might include:

- laws criminalizing possession of small amounts of common drugs like marijuana
- underage drinking laws
- laws forbidding certain common sexual practices (in some jurisdictions, oral sex is still illegal, and I'd bet that a lot of people there don't know that they're breaking the law)
- speed limits (especially where such limits are set artificially low to generate ticket revenue for the city or state)

What are some other examples of laws that are commonly broken, either on purpose or unknowingly, because the people breaking them (and possibly the majority of people in the society) don't think that the behavior they criminalize is wrong?
posted by decathecting to Law & Government (56 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Some recent examples - how about jaywalking? Or adultery?
posted by Chunder at 7:56 AM on January 16, 2007

how about mp3 / movie downloading? I think people know it's illegal, but that's barely a deterrent.
posted by carpyful at 7:57 AM on January 16, 2007

Littering is a pretty big one.
posted by dead_ at 7:57 AM on January 16, 2007

I bet that you could focus almost entirely on driving and get a ton of great answers. You already mentioned speed limits, but I believe it is against the law to not use your turn signals if you are switching lanes or turning. It is also against the law to 'excessively' honk your horn.

I bet everyone has jaywalked in their life.

Nearly everyone I know has downloaded a few MP3s in their life and haven't felt bad about it.
posted by Diskeater at 7:59 AM on January 16, 2007


I very rarely put money in parking meters, applying the philosophy that my taxes have already paid for the streets and their maintenance. Nor have I ever paid a parking ticket in 18 years of driving. One day I will likely regret this!

Pretty much everyone on the planet, including me, has downloaded music from the Internet and traded it with friends. I regularly raid my friends' iTunes.

Plus all the others you mentioned.

Another common one I imagine would be driving after going out with friends for drinks. I think it's generally accepted, for better or for worse, that there is a big difference between an alcoholic driving while seriously hammered and a regular Joe driving after a few beers, though the police and MADD would probably take a less nuanced view.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 8:02 AM on January 16, 2007

Some other thoughts:
Use of mobile 'phone whilst driving
Not wearing a seatbelt (even rear passengers)
Dropping litter (inc. cigarette ends)
Chewing gum (e.g. in Singapore)
Some prescription drugs (in the Middle East)
Parking your car at night without leaving sidelights on (not sure about this one; perhaps only if it's facing oncoming traffic?)
Sounding a cars' horn between 11pm-8am
posted by Chunder at 8:04 AM on January 16, 2007

double parking or otherwise parking illegally "just for a minute"
posted by silverstatue at 8:04 AM on January 16, 2007

Gambling! Some states have gambling laws that make even penny-ante poker games with a group of friends illegal. Tournament pools are often illegal, depending on the state.
posted by phoenixy at 8:07 AM on January 16, 2007

Another example might be careless waitpersons serving alcohol to underage people. In big cities in the US (like NYC or Philly) I found it pretty easy to get served without getting carded- the staff just didn't seem to care.
posted by baphomet at 8:07 AM on January 16, 2007

A good historical example of this is prohibition. When alcoholic beverages became illegal in the US, a huge 'industry' in bootlegging rose up. This doesn't seem like such a big deal until you realize that a lot of other issues came with it - organized crime, racketeering, turf wars, etc. IIRC, some bootleggers also realized that, now that they didn't care about the law anymore, there were more lucrative things they could be doing, some of which carried more societal harm than alcohol did. As long as they had the infrastructure to avoid the law and intimidate potential competitors, they were all set to expand into other activities.

This example has been applied in various ways to argue against the current War on Drugs, so you could probably find more modern information from groups like NORML. However, "prohibition in the 1920s was stupid" is a lot easier to sell to your average audience than "pot should be legal in small quantities", so there may be a tradeoff there.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 8:08 AM on January 16, 2007

There are also, of course, those books which just compile stupid or ridiculous laws that for whatever reason, are still officially on the books.

For instance, I think here in Maryland it is illegal to give or receive oral sex.
posted by JeremiahBritt at 8:10 AM on January 16, 2007

Note: I realize bootleggers weren't "non-criminals", but your average alcohol-drinker was not "a criminal type". So the effects of making illegal those activities that people will do anyway include supporting those activities that only "criminal types" will engage in.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 8:11 AM on January 16, 2007

How about the one I just found (google "silly laws" - perhaps not specific enough for you, but some funny stuff there) :

It's illegal to be drunk on licensed premises.

OK, so how does that work then? :)
posted by Chunder at 8:11 AM on January 16, 2007


And, very likely, every US-based reader has violated some obscure subsection of the Internal Revenue Code.
posted by Merdryn at 8:14 AM on January 16, 2007

I used to work at the Juvenile Justice Department and was amazed at some of the random laws still on the books. To go along with the driving theme:
In MD, you are supposed to have a permit/get permission to purchase or drive a yellow car.
Then there are the tinting laws that alot of people disregard and go a little (or a lot) darker than what you are allowed to do.
Also it's illegal to have anything hanging from your rear view mirror ie air fresheners, chains, anything.

Here's a random one:
It's illegal to spit on the sidewalks... at least in Baltimore... at least according to a policeman... But he did clarify and say that you are permitted to spit on the street, just not the sidewalk
posted by CAnneDC at 8:14 AM on January 16, 2007

In Virginia, it's illegal to be drunk in a public place, even in a bar, even if you're not planning on driving or causing any trouble. There was some controversy a while back when the police began enforcing this one.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:17 AM on January 16, 2007

Taxes taxes taxes. You're supposed to report that side income, you know. Waiters, strippers, payments for services, gambling winnings, etc. Many people are aware of this and do it, many are aware and don't, many aren't aware, and probably many are in that category of vague awareness - they've heard something about it and it's confusing and they haven't bothered looking into it. "But I'm just making a bit of extra cash on the side, what's the big deal?"

Copyright infringement is pretty easy to do without really being aware of what qualifies as infringement. And even if you're aware, it just seems silly sometimes. "I'm not a criminal, I'm just using some of this content for (insert mundane harmless reason).
posted by kookoobirdz at 8:20 AM on January 16, 2007

Anal sex is still illegal in some places. Actually, aren't there a few places where oral sex is technically illegal?

Re: Jaywalking. It's wierd, I think it may be regional. When I go to the Pacific Northwest, people don't cross against the light (Seattle may be an exception, haven't been there in a long time). Being a New Yorker, I base my crossing decisions on oncoming traffic, not the light, so I'm always feeling like a bit of a tool when I'm the only one crossing an intersection against the light.
posted by mkultra at 8:25 AM on January 16, 2007

If you are focusing on underming the respect for the law I think the more potent argument comes from people violating laws that they know about, not the crazy old stuff on the books that most people never knew existed. The classic example of course was prohibition where people openly defied the anti-liquor laws, and even looked the other way with regards to organized crime to the extent that those criminals provided them with booze.
posted by caddis at 8:30 AM on January 16, 2007

For government workers--accepting gifts. No, the contractor can't leave a box of chocolates out for the office. Nope, the visitors from Japan can't give me a small token of thier appreciation. Nuh-uh, you can't take me out to lunch after our training session (though, if I speak at your luncheon, I can eat).
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:31 AM on January 16, 2007

Actually, anal and oral are BOTH considered "sodomy" and sodomy is still illegal all over the place.
posted by jaded at 8:37 AM on January 16, 2007

I just found out that sex outside of marriage is still illegal in Minnesota. I'm sure there are lots of people unknowingly breaking that law!
posted by elquien at 8:45 AM on January 16, 2007

Sharing prescription drugs. I'm sure many people don't think twice about giving a friend who's upset a Xanax their doctor gave them.
posted by crabintheocean at 8:49 AM on January 16, 2007

In Illinois, if you have your windshield wipers on, your headlights have to be on, too. Which is a good idea, but there are times when it's only raining a bit, and not that cloudy...
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 8:53 AM on January 16, 2007

#1: Stealing disposable pens from your office. (Unless you own your own business).

#2: Swearing in public (in Virginia).

#3: Lewd and lascivious cohabitation (in Virginia).

In fact, I could fill this entire page with cites to Chapter 8 of the Virginia Criminal Code, "Crimes Involving Morals and Decency." Keep in mind, though, that many of these laws are not enforced, and if they were enforced they would likely be held unconstitutional (especially #2 and #3 above).
posted by profwhat at 8:56 AM on January 16, 2007

In the UK anything that causes alarm in public can be construed as a breach of the peace. So avoid contact with any easily alarmed people.
posted by fire&wings at 9:02 AM on January 16, 2007

people commit insurance fraud pretty often. little things like saying the car was in pristine shape before you totalled it, or getting a windshield replaced when it just has a couple nicks in it.
posted by alkupe at 9:05 AM on January 16, 2007

I think the "Office Pool" gambling thing is a very good example (and is increasingly timely as we head towards Super Bowl/Oscars/March Madness season. A football pool that I participated in in the past had grown to tens of thousands of participants this year with six figures in prizes available. In the middle of the season it was abruptly shut down when the organizers were arrested, with all funds confiscated. The individual participants have not been prosecuted ... so far.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:08 AM on January 16, 2007

How many people have always come to a complete stop at every stop sign?
posted by Atreides at 9:10 AM on January 16, 2007

Statutory rape, when the people involved are very close in age.
Not collecting and reporting sales tax on ebay, garage sales, selling your car, etc.
"Finders keepers."
Insider trading.
Hiring illegal immigrants.

By the way, I'm not buying your premise, for a lot of reasons. That's not what you asked about, however, so I'll sit on my hands.
posted by hydrophonic at 9:32 AM on January 16, 2007

Gameday drinking on college campuses.

Many college campuses aren't "wet," which is to say that bringing alcohol there is against the law, and drinking it out in the open is also illegal, however I would wager that millions of college football fans engage in illegal tailgating activities on a weekly basis throughout the fall. Depending on open-container laws around the country, NFL games would fall into this category, too.
posted by dead_ at 9:36 AM on January 16, 2007

Changing lanes in a school zone
Passing in a school zone
Listening to headphones on a bike or while driving
Making a U-turn or Y-turn in front of a Fire Station
Chewing gum in Singapore without a perscription
posted by Monkey0nCrack at 9:40 AM on January 16, 2007

In Calgary, it is now illegal to spit in public. I'm sure other cities have such laws, but I don't see any great variation in the number of people spitting outside since the law was passed.

Carrying a pocket knife, even a small one, is quasi-legal in many places (including Calgary) though many people I know carry a swiss-army knife or a multitool.

We also have a $10000 fine for the discharge of an air-pistol (including a BB gun) inside the city. I know many of my friends used to plink at targets in their basements as kids.
posted by Crosius at 9:49 AM on January 16, 2007

Levity in AskMe.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:50 AM on January 16, 2007

In Connecticut it is illegal to dispose of used razor blades. So I keep them forever.
posted by spinturtle at 9:53 AM on January 16, 2007

found these online... don't know if they are true.
--In Arkansas it's illegal for dogs to bark after 6 pm.
--In California women are not allowed to drive in a housecoat.
--In Colorado a person cannot mutilate a rock in a state park.
--In Connecticut it's unlawful to walk backwards after sunset.
--In Delaware people aren't allowed to change clothes in a vehicle.
--It is illegal to sell ice cream after 6 p.m. in Newark, NJ, unless the customer has a note from his doctor.
--In Wyoming you may not take a picture of a rabbit during the month of June and Cheyenne citizens may not take a shower on a Wednesday.
--In Alabama putting salt on railroad tracks may be punishable by death.
--In Texas car dealerships continue to operate under blue-law prohibitions in which an automobile may not be purchased or traded on a Sunday.
posted by nimsey lou at 9:53 AM on January 16, 2007

Going slow in the fast lane on the interstate. That has to be illegal, right?
posted by dead_ at 9:54 AM on January 16, 2007

Blue laws.

I'm not sure how accurate this website is, but should give you ideas: http://www.dumblaws.com/laws/united-states/missouri/.
posted by Amizu at 10:00 AM on January 16, 2007

I wonder how many of these things are unknowing or unthinking. We all *know* we're breaking the law when we speed, we just don't care, or don't think we'll get caught. Same with littering, jaywalking, etc. We all know they're illegal.

Stuff like the oral sex laws seem more appropriate, since most people probably don't know about them.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:31 AM on January 16, 2007

In many states, you are supposed to pay state sales tax if you order something online and don't pay the sales tax to the business at the time of purchase.
posted by MegoSteve at 10:43 AM on January 16, 2007

I've run red lights before, especially late at night/early morning (~ 3 a.m.) in rural areas around Florida. Knew it was illegal, but could see for miles in any direction it seems and so went anyway.

I used to drink much more before I was old enough to; for some reason it interested me more then. Besides, I suspected I was still more reasonable when drunk than some of the adults I knew were when they were sober.
posted by Tuwa at 11:07 AM on January 16, 2007

Wow, my last comment could have used some more careful editing.

Also, it seems to me you have three different cases:
What are some laws that people break often without thinking about it or that it would be easy to break without realizing you're committing a crime?


I'm trying to demonstrate that a lot of otherwise law-abiding people either unknowingly or unthinkingly become "criminals" by engaging in common behavior that is illegal, but that they don't think is wrong.

1) illegal action done while not thinking about the law prohibiting it
2) illegal action done while unaware that it's illegal
3) illegal action done while aware that it's legal, but thinking that it should not be.

Covering all three of those might muddy the waters a bit in your presentation unless you have them clearly outlined and separated.
posted by Tuwa at 11:15 AM on January 16, 2007

Are you interested in obscure laws? For example; in NY state, when you are making a left turn at a green light when there is a lot of oncoming traffic, you can put your car in the intersection to "wait out the yellow", and when it turns red (and opposing traffic stops), make your left. But only one car can do this.

Or are you talking about the every day, common knowledge laws that are broken? I see a lot, but my pet peeves (all traffic related):
- Motorcycles "splitting lanes"
- Ignoring the "No turn on red" signs
- Bicyclists running stop signs & red lights
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 11:59 AM on January 16, 2007

Feeding meters is illegal in many places.

The problem with your question is that a lot of the laws that people commonly unknowingly break are city or county or state laws, and thus are not universal. In your speech, you should likely stick to your local area if your thesis is to be effective.

VA, for instance, has not only kept a lot of outdated laws on the books, it defends this by insisting that they need them to double-triple-quadruple charge the bad guys with long, long lists of charges or have a legal reason to arrest people being sober and disorderly.
posted by desuetude at 12:53 PM on January 16, 2007

Letting your dog run off leash.
posted by acoutu at 1:00 PM on January 16, 2007

NYC has a number of violations specifically about recycling.

There's also a number of places around the city that have "No Honking - $350 Fine" signs, but for the life of me I've never seen anyone adhere to them.
posted by Remy at 1:44 PM on January 16, 2007

Also, see this FPP about adultery.
posted by desuetude at 2:46 PM on January 16, 2007

nevermind. blinked right past chunders inaugural response in this thread.
posted by desuetude at 2:55 PM on January 16, 2007

Here in Michigan, it's illegal to swear in front of women or children.

However, a decent reference for this (if you want to add historical spice) is Hegel's Philosophy of RIght (which I believe is up on the web for free somewhere, though I'm too lazy to google it at the moment). In it, he provides a lot of references to Roman legal coade, in which the exacting minutea of the law ("law by definition") deviates further and further from what anyone would think of as right.
posted by klangklangston at 2:59 PM on January 16, 2007

>#1: Stealing disposable pens from your office. (Unless you own your own business).

Not so fast -- if you own your own business, claim those pens as a business expense then take them home for personal use, you're cheating on your taxes, aren't you?
posted by AmbroseChapel at 3:16 PM on January 16, 2007

I think a number of states (including California recently) have made it against the law to drive and speak on a cell phone without a hands-free device.
posted by dendrite at 3:57 PM on January 16, 2007

While sitting through a session of Multnomah County Community Court, I witnessed a good one: A fellow (non-caucasian, for what it's worth) was in a bar and saw a five dollar bill blowing down the street. He chased after the bill and ran headlong into a cop. The cop arrested him for open container and petty theft. "Was that your five dollar bill?" ... "No, I found it on the street." His friend (who was cited only with open container and received a much lighter punishment, collaborated this story and the cop did not refute it.) The judge upheld both charges based on this set of facts.

"Finder's keepers", even for laughingly small amounts is considered theft. My law-abiding mom breaks this one all the time. Open container laws are similarly selectively enforced. Google for "selective enforcement" and you'll probably find a lot of laws that are on the books purely to give cops a free ticket regarding who they choose to harass.
posted by Skwirl at 5:45 PM on January 16, 2007

Also, a lot of cities have sit/lie laws that are selectively enforced against the homeless. That is to say, you can't sit on a sidewalk. Of course, it's not enforced against soccer moms saving spaces for parades.

Speeding on a bicycle is a good one. DWI on a bicycle is enforced from time to time as well.

One fellow was arrested here for sitting on a milk crate.
posted by Skwirl at 5:53 PM on January 16, 2007

Many SUV are heavy enough to qualify as small trucks under Californian law, and thus are illegal to drive on the streets of San Franciscos.
posted by gmarceau at 9:23 PM on January 16, 2007

Hey, thanks to everyone who has answered. I think the examples that are most useful are those where the activity is fairly common (gambling, sex, etc.) and where the law has enough of a current rational basis to be less easily dismissed. That is, some of the "check out this wacky law where horses can't wear straw hats on alternate Tuesdays" are too obscure and far out of the realm of normal modern policy discussion (not to mention unlikely to ever be enforced) to be useful as examples. State laws are more useful to me than local laws, and national laws are even better. I'm marking as best answers the ones that I'm planning to use. If anyone has any others, I'd love to get a few more.
posted by decathecting at 8:54 AM on January 17, 2007

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