Ignorance of the law is no excuse, as we have all been told time and time again. What we haven’t been told is that today, ignorance of the law is an unavoidable and unfortunate reality. Our Constitution lists three federal crimes: treason, piracy and counterfeiting. In the last four decades, the list of federal crimes has grown to more than 4,500, with an additional 300,000 or so regulations that are also criminal if violated.
Those numbers are estimates, however, because not even the Congressional Research Service knows how many federal criminal laws there are, The Heritage Foundation reported. Yet the expectation is still that we should “know the law” and not be surprised when we’re prosecuted for breaking it unknowingly. The famous saying from Stalin’s chief of police, “Show me the man and I will find the crime,” has become a plausible situation in modern America.
What’s worse about this situation (as if it could be worse) is that laws used to be subject to mens rea, meaning “guilty mind,” under which perpetrators of the law shouldn’t be found guilty if they haven’t shown intent to do something wrong. Many new laws and regulations do not require intent in order for someone to be found guilty, and the result has been a massive increase in federal criminals over the past couple of decades. The best example might be that of finding a feather on the sidewalk and picking it up, only to be told that it is a feather from an endangered bird and the sentence for possessing the feather includes jail time. You didn’t know you were breaking the law, but you were guilty nonetheless.
From 2000-2010, more than 788,000 people were convicted of federal crimes. It’s highly likely that you have been guilty of breaking laws that you (and almost everyone else) didn’t know even existed, but you can be prosecuted for them regardless.
Since you’re more than likely guilty of some of these crimes, you may as well know what a few of them are. Here are eight federal laws and state laws you may be breaking:
1. Leaving Your Teenager at Home, Alone
The laws for how old children have to be to stay at home alone vary greatly from state to state. Some states don’t have any law concerning the matter. Others issue recommendations but don’t enforce a specific age requirement. In Illinois, however, leaving your 13 year old at home alone is cause for legal action — and could result in jail for parents. On the flip side of that coin, Kansas allows children as young as 6 to be left alone. The entire list can be found here.
2. Friendly Bets
There’s no harm in placing a friendly wager with your friends on the ballgame this weekend, right? But if more than $2,000 is involved in a single day, you could be handcuffed and led away. The Illegal Gambling Act of 1970 states that any gambling that violates state or local law, involves five or more people, and involves $2,000 or more in a single day is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
In 2005 a guy named Sal Culosi found this out the hard way when a cop overheard him betting with his buddies in a bar. The cop befriended Culosi and egged on the betting over a few months until Culosi finally crossed the $2,000 threshold in a day. That evening a SWAT team arrived at Culosi’s house to arrest him, but a trigger-happy member of the team put a bullet in his heart as soon as Culosi opened the front door, and he died.
3. Possession of a Permanent Marker
There are more than a few states where it’s actually illegal to buy a permanent marker for a minor, including California — where it’s legal to buy marijuana with a doctor’s note. The justification comes from attempting to prevent or curtail graffiti. Surely they don’t enforce this law, right? The 13 year old in Oklahoma who wrote on his desk in permanent marker would disagree, as he was taken into custody for possessing one. In Oklahoma City, it’s illegal to possess a permanent marker on private property.
4. Getting Lost in the Wrong Place
Bobby Unser is best known for winning the Indianapolis 500 three times, but he’s also made news for being convicted of a federal misdemeanor. What did he do? He got lost in a blizzard. Unser and a friend were caught by a blizzard near the New Mexico/Colorado border where Unser lived, and survived a harrowing 2-day ordeal before they were rescued.
In the process, they accidentally drove a snowmobile onto a National Forest Wilderness Area, for which he faced six months in prison and a $5,000 fine. He was ultimately only fined $75, but was convicted of a federal misdemeanor. Unser appealed his conviction all the way to the Supreme Court but was unsuccessful at having it overturned.
5. Writing “Disturbing” Fiction
Some states, Illinois for example, make it illegal to write anything that might freak people out. If you write fiction that disturbs the person who reads it — even if it’s personal, non-published writing — you can face 30 days in jail and up to $1,500 in fines. So much for the First Amendment.
6. Singing Copyrighted Songs in Public
Singing “Happy Birthday” to your child at a birthday party in a public park is technically illegal, because the song is copyrighted. Think I’m kidding? Time Warner, the current holder of the copyright, collects about $2 million per year in royalties off people singing along. The ASCAP even tried to pressure the Girl Scouts to pay royalties for singing various songs around campfires, until they were publicly shamed enough to back down. At the time, the Scout leaders were threatened with fines up to $100,000 per performance, and a year in prison.
7. Using Unsecured Wi-Fi
Sitting outside a McDonald’s restaurant and accessing their Wi-Fi is, technically, illegal. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is one of those pieces of legislation that contains extremely vague language when it discusses “unauthorized access” to a computer network. By the letter of the law, just because there isn’t a password required doesn’t mean you can hop on and surf. State laws back this up.
These are, unbelievably, a very small sampling of the multitude of ridiculous and over-reaching laws in our country. It’s always funny to see what some states have passed into law over the many years since we gained our independence from an overreaching British government, but it’s far more sobering to realize the full spectrum of laws that are real and on the books now. We have become not only a nation of laws, but a nation of “how many laws can we write?” It’s time to pass some new legislation. I suggest a law that makes it illegal to pass a vague, overreaching, or flat-out stupid law.
What would you add to the list? Share your suggestions in the section below: