In the scheme of things, The United States is a very young country. But 245 years is enough time for a government to pass thousands of laws, revise those laws, undo those laws, and replace them with more. Then consider that thousands of state, country, and local governments across the country have been doing the same this whole time. Add to the mix, the U.S. is an intense cultural melting pot, wherein dozens of ethnicities, religions, and organizations have vied for social prominence, with their relative contributions varying wildly across space and through time.
As you’d expect, it has led to some interesting clauses, addendums, caveats, and loopholes in what is or is not legal in a given place. Here are ten of those laws, laws that are unique, surprising, ancient, or just plain baffling- but which you might be breaking right now.
The extent to which the U.S. is a Christian nation is a subject of debate, but you can’t deny its influence no matter where you stand. If you’re like me and grew up in New England, you can’t avoid the Puritan influence on place names, landmarks, and even to this day- its laws. Most famous are the Blue Laws, which still restrict certain activities on Sundays. But a surprising remnant of this time is anti-blasphemy laws. Though the federal government has deferred to the First Amendment of the Constitution and refrained from banning blasphemy, many states chose a different path.
To this day, it is illegal to take the Christian God’s name in vain in at least Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Wyoming. Though no officer would enforce the law, and no legal appeal would end in favor of the outdated laws, many are still on the books. Goddamn it if that isn’t interesting.
9 Sharing Your Password
The U.S. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1984 will come up a couple of times here. The act was a very forward-thinking measure from the federal government, but as you can imagine, any rule meant to govern the internet as it existed in 1984 is going to have a tough time staying relevant here in 2021.
Side note: the measure was created largely because some members of Congress thought the Matthew Broderick sci-fi film WarGames would come true. Anyways, one small piece of the measure made sharing your password illegal. Not just illegal, but potentially a felony. That’s right. If you want to share your login information with grandma so she can watch The Crown, you could face actual jail time. And no one should get jail time for watching The Crown. That should be reserved for Iron Fist.
8 Swearing at a Sporting Event
More generally than blasphemy, laws against any swearing have existed since the country’s beginnings. Again, the federal government has stuck to its First Amendment stance, but local government laws run the gamut. They range from the complete protection of speech to specific and often arcane rules about certain words and phrases.
One of the best, mainly for its futility (for obvious reasons) is the rule in Massachusetts against swearing at a sporting event. Really. Red Sox fans can’t legally swear at visiting Yankees. And since the rule applies statewide and to all sporting events, telling your little cousin they kicked a— in their little league game in, say, the Berkshires is illegal and punishable by a $50 fine. I assume they’ll mail that to me soon.
7 Bingo Games Going Long
In North Carolina, an organization can hold a maximum of two bingo games per week, and each game cannot last longer than 5 hours. No two games can be held within 48 hours of each other. No two organizations can use the same location for their bingo games in the same week. The maximum cash prize for any bingo game, no matter its size, is $500. Any violation of these rules renders the bingo games officially gambling, and therefore subject to termination and/or forfeiture of proceeds. North Carolina has some serious hangups about bingo. It’s all so specific and targeted that you just know there’s a juicy backstory behind it all, some olden-day Walter White of the N.C. bingo scene whose blue bingo chips turned the world of casual geriatric counting games on its head.
6 Trick-or-Treating Over 14
Trick-or-treating is unusual because the laws governing it mostly accrued in the past century as it gained popularity, not from Pilgrims who were just really particular about their candy. Though, if they had banned self-righteous households from handing out floss and apples instead of candy, the world would be a better place. New trick-or-treat laws still pop up from time to time, mostly regarding curfews and parental accompaniment. One law in Chesapeake, Virginia, went viral a few years ago for imposing a pretty harsh age restriction on the Halloween event. It banned children over the age of 12 from trick-or-treating.
Those 13 and older who attempted such a despicable act were subject to punishment by a fine and even jail time. Look, this isn’t the plague years in the old country where little Klaus had to step up at age nine and head the family after papa passed; 13 year-olds are still children. And if they want to dress like dabs or nae-naes or whatever it is kids like nowadays, they should be able to. This law is proof that something need not be old to be outdated.
5 Just Kinda… Buying Alcohol
Many states have alcohol restrictions. Aside from the obvious legal drinking age, there is also how much you can buy, when you can buy it, and who you can buy it with. If you live in Utah, you probably know this better than anyone because, in almost every category, Utah’s prohibition-era alcohol laws are some of the most strict in the country. It wasn’t until 2009 that Utahans were able to just enter bars and drink. Before this, they had to essentially enroll in memberships at the bars of their choosing in order to drink there.
Until 2017, restaurants had to have installed so-called Zion Curtains, barriers that hang in front of drink-mixing staff members in order to keep the apparently magic process of mixing cocktails from the view of guests. It is also illegal to make cocktails with more than 2.5 ounces of alcohol, sell beer over 5.0% alcohol in grocery stores, have any happy hour deals, and even just order a double. How funny would it be if the law’s wording didn’t mention triples and drinkers took to ordering full glasses of whiskey to get sauced legally.
4 Using Another Name Online
That Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is back, this time about the names you use online. Basically, this law says that if a site requires you to use your real name, failure to do so is a federal crime. The logic being that you, with your given name, need authorized access to the site, and the online you, without your given name, is the one getting the authorized access. So you, the real you, aren’t authorized. The Act labels this “hacking.” You’re digitally trespassing and can be fined or even jailed.
The principle behind this is sound- you cannot fraudulently pretend to be another person- but in practice, this leads to a lot of tricky grey areas and common, benign offenses. For someone like myself who hasn’t used their birth name in years, signing up for certain websites with their new name is a crime unless they’ve legally changed their name. And let’s face it, we all make fake email accounts to sign up for extra free trials.
Michigan has its fair share of cheaters. This isn’t some weirdly specific stereotype you’ve never heard of, just a matter of statistics. There are some everywhere. But unlike in other states, cheating in Michigan is against the law. The Michigan Penal Code reads, “Any person who shall commit adultery shall be guilty of a felony.” Pretty straightforward.
But it gets strange, continuing with “and when the crime is committed between a married woman and a man who is unmarried, the man shall be guilty of adultery, and liable to the same punishment.” That’s right, for some reason if a man has an affair with another man’s wife, he is an adulterer too, but if you reverse the genders and a woman has an affair with a married man, it is no longer adultery for the woman. So a lesson to all you Michiganders: stay faithful. Unless you’re an unmarried woman sleeping with another woman’s husband. Then go nuts.
2 Using Someone’s Internet
Alright, this is the last time we’ll dip into The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The trilogy is complete. There is a piece of the Act that makes unauthorized use of a computer network illegal. Like the rest, this sounds sensible. And in many ways, it is- there are legitimate hackers out there who use access to unprotected connections to steal information from unsuspecting victims, which is generally referred to as piggybacking. However, with the advent of wifi and devices that create automatic, casual connections with nearby wifi sources, the law has become murky. For instance, many smartphones, tablets, and laptops automatically search for and connect to wireless signals as they move.
Depending on your interpretation of the law and the definitions of “authorized” and “access,” an innocent drive through a shopping complex with a smartphone activated could mean you’ve broken federal law a dozen times within minutes. Further, all 50 states have their own laws regarding unauthorized internet use, which at times helps clarify the matter, and at times complicates it even further.
1 Being in a Bar While Drunk
Just like the weird laws regarding the sale and serving of alcohol, every state has its own peculiar laws about how you need to behave once you’ve drunk it. With a few exceptions, being drunk in public is illegal across the country. Even those states without their own law against it allow their cities and counties to enforce their own penalties. In Michigan, it’s specifically illegal to be drunk on a train. In New Mexico, it’s illegal to wakeboard while drunk. In Wyoming, it’s illegal to be drunk inside a mine. But one of the best comes from Alaska. In Alaska, it’s illegal to be drunk… in a bar.
The law reads that it is illegal for a drunk person to “remain within licensed premises or to consume an alcoholic beverage within licensed premises.” Anyone who serves you is an offender, as well, as the law says that they may not “sell, give, or barter alcoholic beverages to a drunken person.” I like the idea of bartering for drinks at bars. I sell the family donkey, you give me a bottle of Macallan. She’s in good health, so I’ll need at least an 18-year.