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slides: 20 Things You Didn’t Know Were Illegal In RI

Thursday, July 16, 2015


See some of the most surprising criminal laws in Rhode Island.


Related Slideshow: RI’s Questionable Criminal Laws

From the strange to the archaic, below are 20 of the most questionable criminal laws in Rhode Island. For each, a reference to the statute, chapter, and section are provided with a link to the law.

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1. Fake Death Notices

State Law: 11-18-3

Description: It may be cruel, but should it be a crime? State law currently bans anyone from submitting false death notices to a newspaper. The same applies to fraudulent birth and marriage notices, which could be cruel or delusional depending on the circumstances. 

Penalty: $100

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2. Acting like Governor

State Law: 11-43-7

Description: State law bars anyone other than the office holder assuming or exercising any of the functions of Governor. Same goes for all the other general officers and any state rep or senator. Maybe rogue governors were a real problem in 1896 when this statute was originally adopted but we doubt that anyone who strolls into the Statehouse pretending to be Gina Raimondo might get a few laughs and maybe a brief Capitol Police escort—out of the building. But life imprisonment? 

Penalty: Life imprisonment

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3. Traitors

State Law: 11-43-1

Description: Giving ‘aid and comfort’ to enemies of Rhode Island is considered treason according a law that dates back to a time when the Civil War was still fresh in the memory of lawmakers. Harboring a known traitor also carries a minimum penalty of five years in prison. 

Penalty: Life imprisonment

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4. Telephone Abuse

State Law11-35-17

Description: Using ‘threatening, vulgar, indecent, obscene, or immoral language’ over a telephone is a misdemeanor punishable by a $500 fine or a year in prison. We can see a public interest in targeting threatening language. But outlawing cussing or ‘immoral’ language—whatever that might be—dates back to an era when, well, people actually used the word ‘telephone.’ Swearing in public is illegal too, but the penalty is a far less serious $5 slap on the wrist. 

Penalty: One-year imprisonment, $500, or both

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5. Radios for Felons

State Law: 11-1-11

Description: There is legitimate room for debate about whether felons should forfeit certain rights, like the right to bear arms. But banning police scanners for felons seems a bit overbearing. And what about up-and-coming criminals whose rap sheets only boast a few misdemeanors? 

Penalty: Maximum of 5 years in prison and $5,000 fine

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6. Spit Patrol

State Law: 11-5-8.1

Description: Assaulting a prison guard with ‘any bodily fluid’ is a serious crime in Rhode Island. Since sexual assault is presumably covered elsewhere we’re assuming this is referring to spit and blood. Perhaps a concern about blood-borne pathogens is the motive behind this law. But why are prison guards the only ones protected from such assaults? Why not police officers and politicians? Not to mention Joe Public. 

Penalty: Maximum of 5 years in prison and $5,000

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7. Hush-hush Births

State Law: 11-8-4

Description: One section of this law makes sense: the proscription against concealing the death of an infant child, so it cannot be known whether it was born alive and subsequently murdered or simply—and sadly—stillborn.

What has us scratching our heads is that the law also applies to concealing the birth of an infant period. The days when a girl seemed to run off to a farm to have an out-of-wedlock child seem to have gone the ways of the horse and buggy. But even if someone wanted to do that, we’re not sure why it should be illegal. 

Penalty: 10 months in prison or $300

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8. Stealing Swine

State Law: 11-8-6

Description: Stealing swine is pretty pig-headed, but so is creating a special statute just for pig pilfering when there are already laws on the books against theft of any kind. 

Penalty: 5 years in prison, $500, or both

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9. The Fling Fine

State Law: 11-6-2

Description: Adultery is still illegal in Rhode Island. And both parties are held liable—even if only one is married. Unsurprisingly, this law dates back to 1896. Surprisingly, this section of the statute was last updated—leaving the adultery fine intact—as recently as 1989.  

Penalty: Maximum of $500

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10. Library Police

State Law11-41-14

Description: Any person who borrows a book from a library and fails to return it 60 days after receiving an overdue notice is guilty of a misdemeanor and a fine of $25—not to mention any fines accrued from the library. As if the iPhone generation needed yet another reason to not visit the library. 

Penalty: $25

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11. Sand Bandits

State Law: 11-44-16

Description: We’re not sure why anyone would pocket sand from the beach. Or why only Easton’s Beach in Newport is protected. But the bigger question may be why only sand removal is outlawed. Of all the things that someone might ferret away, sand probably comes last after sea shells, sea glass, and precious-looking stones. 

Penalty: $20

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12. Bad Samaritans

State Law: 11-56-1

Description: Should you help someone who has been in an accident? Absolutely. But should you be charged with a misdemeanor and fined if you don’t? Rhode Island is only one of a handful of states that thinks so. No exception for people who get cold feet but have enough presence of mind to at least call 911. 

Penalty: Maximum of 6 months in prison, $500, or both

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13. Hogging the Phone

State Law: 11-35-14

Description: Back in the days before everyone had a cell phone, hogging a house line could be annoying. In Rhode Island, it’s still illegal to refuse to turn over the ‘party line’—as the law puts it—in case someone needs to make an emergency call. That’s reasonable though outdated. But it’s a bit of a stretch to threaten three months in prison and a $20 fine for anyone who claims they are hoarding the phone because of an emergency. 

Penalty: 3 months in prison or $20 fine

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14. Teen Tattoos

State Law: 11-9-15

Description: Barring tattoo parlors from serving minors without parental consent isn’t that radical of an idea. Making it a misdemeanor to tattoo a minor without parental consent is. 

Penalty: Maximum 1 year in prison or $300 fine

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15. Horsing Around

State Law: 11-22-11

Description: Horse and buggies are a thing of the past, but not, apparently, the law regulating them. Rhode Island still has a law on the books banning horse racing on highways. Chances are, if you take your horse out into a highway, the consequences could be a lot more severe than a $20 fine or 10 days in jail. 

Penalty: 10 days in prison or $20 fine

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16. Wholesale Crime

State Law: 11-9.1-12

Description: We’re not sure why someone would knowingly leave a warehouse operator’s name off a receipt for goods deposited in that warehouse. Why this warrants one year in prison or a $1,000 fine puzzles all the more. 

Penalty: Maximum 1 year in prison, $1,000 fine, or both

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17. Paint Prohibited

State Law: 11-9-19.1

Description: There are all kinds of contraband we should be worried about teens having: drugs, alcohol, and guns leap to mind. But spray paint? Presumably this law that criminalizes ‘possession of spray paint’ is aimed at graffiti. But there are a lot of other things spray paint can be used for besides vandalism. By this logic we should also bans teens from having cell phones because they could be used for sexting and having toilet paper because it could be used to tent a house. The law makes an exception for possession on your parents’ house, but what about a friends place? Or anywhere else teens hang out? Adults: you’re not off the hook either. Selling spray paint to a minor carries a $100 fine. 

Penalty: 50 hours community service

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18. Dueling Schedules

State Law: 11-12-6

Description: It’s illegal to schedule a fight. This law, which was last updated in the 1950s, makes none of the obvious exceptions. What about professional boxers and wrestlers?

Penalty: Maximum of 10 years in prison and $5,000 fine

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19. Imposter Politicos

State Law: 11-52-7.1

Description: On first blush a state law against online impersonation intended to harm, threaten, or defraud another seems sensible enough. But read this section carefully, describing the kind of behavior that is in violation: “Uses the name or persona of a public official to create a web page on, or to post one or more messages on, a commercial social networking site or sends an electronic mail, instant message, text message, or similar communication without obtaining the public official’s consent and with the intent … to act in reliance upon that pretense to the other person’s detriment.” The ACLU warns that that could be used to chill political speech and satire. 

Penalty: Maximum of 1 year in prison, $1,000 fine, or both (first offense)

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20. Taking Your Chances

State Law: 11-19-9

Description: Raffles are staples of club, society, lodge dances, dinners, charity fundraisers and other similar events. But any business that wants to run a raffle runs afoul of a state law intended to ban anything that “partake[s] so much of the nature of a lottery as to be detrimental to the public morals.” 

Penalty: Maximum of 1 year in prison, $1,000 fine, or both


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