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Odd laws sometimes still have bite


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Odd laws sometimes still have bite

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- In Virginia, under the terms of a 1950 law, no animal may be hunted on Sundays except raccoons, which may be hunted until 2:00 a.m.

In Connecticut, a 1949 ordinance forbids the storing of town records in any place where liquor is sold.

A 1974 Tennessee law states: "It is unlawful for any person to import, possess, or cause to be imported into this state any type of live skunk."

The legal codes of U.S. states, counties and cities are replete with archaic, sometimes nonsensical and often humorous laws, many of which were passed decades or even centuries ago for a reason that seemed good at the time but has long since been forgotten or faded into irrelevance.

But these old laws occasionally come back to bite.

Sheriff Carson Smith of Pender County, North Carolina, recently relied on a 1805 law banning the cohabitation of unmarried persons to give one of his employees an ultimatum.

He told Deborah Hobbs she could either marry her boyfriend, move out of the house they were living in together or get fired. Hobbs, 40, quit and went to the American Civil Liberties Union, which launched a legal challenge to the law.

"This is not a dead-letter law in North Carolina. We have found this statute has been used 36 times since 1997 to charge people with a crime. At least seven have been convicted," said Jennifer Rudinger, the ACLU's North Carolina director.

It turns out six other states also have anti-cohabitation laws: Virginia, West Virginia, Florida, Michigan, Mississippi and North Dakota. Four other states -- Illinois, Minnesota, South Carolina and Utah -- have laws against fornication, defined as unmarried sex, according to Dorian Solot of the Alternatives to Marriage Project, a group based in Albany, New York which advocates for equality and fairness for unmarried people.

"The good news is most of these laws are not enforced, as far as we know," said Solot. "They occasionally come up when a prosecutor is already looking into an individual and may decide to throw another charge at them."

The ACLU argues all these statutes are unconstitutional, citing a 2003 Supreme Court decision striking down a Texas anti-sodomy law, which established a broad constitutional right to sexual privacy.

In Washington state, Gov. Christine Gregoire signed a law last month allowing pregnant women to divorce their husbands. It was prompted by the case of Shawnna Hughes who was denied the right to divorce her physically abusive husband by Superior Court Judge Paul Bastine because she was pregnant.

"There's a lot of case law that says it is important in this state that children not be illegitimized," the judge said at the time.

No cussing

Most states still have anti-swearing laws on their books which police occasionally try to enforce. Judges usually throw them out but citizens sometimes get fined or spend a few hours in a local jail.

In one Michigan case, a man who let loose a stream of curses after falling out of a canoe in 1999 was convicted of violating a law against cursing in front of women and children. He was fined $75 and ordered to perform four days of community service. In 2002, an appeals court struck down the 1898 law and threw out the conviction.

According to Chris Edwards of the conservative Cato Institute, all this argues for increased use of "sunsetting clauses" when passing new laws and regulations. Such clauses automatically terminate statutes after a specified period, unless the legislature expressly reauthorizes them.

Sunsetting was included in important sections of the 2001 U.S. Patriot Act, passed by Congress shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks to give law enforcement agencies more tools to fight terrorism. Congress is now debating reauthorization and seems likely to make some changes.

"These hearings on the Patriot Act are exactly the kind of thing you want. Government doesn't spend enough time on oversight, looking at what's been done and how it's working," Edwards said.

President Bush's 2001 tax cuts also included sunset clauses; its provision are supposed to expire in 2010. However critics charge that this time, sunsetting was little more than a smokescreen, allowing Republicans to keep the projected costs of the tax cut within limits set by a congressional budget resolution.

Silly laws can be a source of amusement. Two enterprising high school students in Georgia, Andy Powell and Jeff Koon, started an Internet site, www.dumblaws.com. It gets up to 10,000 hits a day and has been spun off into a book and a follow-up on dumb warning labels.

The site contains numerous gems, although Powell acknowledged he has been unable to verify them all.

According to the site, in Minnesota a person may not cross state lines with a duck atop his head. In North Carolina, it is illegal to sing off key. In Idaho, you may not fish on a camel's back while Ohio makes it unlawful to get a fish drunk or to fish for a whale on Sundays.

Copyright 2005 Reuters. All rights reserved.


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