RI’s Worst and Most Outdated Criminal Laws

Thursday, July 16, 2015


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If you’ve ever sworn during a phone call, failed to return an overdue library book, or removed sand from a certain beach in Newport, you’ve run afoul of one of Rhode Island’s many outdated or ill-conceived criminal laws.

Many date back to the era of the Puritans but others are only a few years old. Some are silly, like the law against testing the speed of a horse on the highway. Then there are those that are superfluous, such as a specific provision against stealing swine when there are already laws against theft elsewhere in the criminal statute. (See below slides for the top 20 laws.)

“There’s some unbelievably antiquated laws that need to go,” said Rep. John Edwards, D-Tiverton.

They may sound silly or superfluous, but Edwards and others warn that such laws pose a serious threat to constitutional rights.

“Questionable laws can have serious and detrimental real-life consequences, as lawsuits the ACLU has filed in recent years demonstrate. Last year, in striking down a state law (17-23-2) that made anonymous pamphleteering a crime, a federal judge wrote that it was ‘hard to imagine what the Rhode Island General Assembly was thinking when it passed this law.’ Yet only a year earlier, a person had been arrested by police for violating that law,” said Steve Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island ACLU.

Three years ago, he said the ACLU sued on behalf of a newspaper that had violated a law against media ads containing the names of public officials without their consent. The statute was later repealed.

Criminalizing the everyday

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Up until 2012, it was a misdemeanor to lie online, something that veteran local criminal defense attorney Bob Mann said made about half the people using dating Web sites guilty of a crime.

But other laws like that one remain on the books.

“It is not far-fetched to worry that other dubious laws on the books, like one banning online impersonation, could easily be used against political speech or even satirical Web sites,” Brown said. He cited the newspaper case as an example of why such fears are not groundless.  

Some laws seem needlessly specific or overbearing. Mann pointed to the swine-theft law. “I’m not sure you need a specific crime for each member of the animal kingdom,” he said.

Then there’s the ban on possession of spray paint by minors, paired with a detailed section on how retail store clerks should confirm IDs. The law makes an exception for possession at one’s family home but not a friend’s or relative’s place.

“Regarding the criminalization of everyday life, the most distressing part of developing our Freedom Index, which rates bills and then scores legislators on how they vote on those bills, is the powerful reminder of how much authority legislators feel they should have over their neighbors’ lives,” said Justin Katz, the research director at the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

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“On the whole, it’s difficult to conclude otherwise than that they do not think the rest of us are adults who can’t be left to resolve their differences without having a parental government hovering in the background,” Katz added.

One law stands out not for what it bans, but instead for what it mandates. The criminal statute puts a twist on what are typically considered Good Samaritan laws. Normally, such laws protect from civil action bystanders who rush to the aid of an accident victim suffering life-threatening injuries. That provision expired without renewal this year. But left intact is a requirement that anyone with the ability to do so much assist at an accident scene. 

Such inaction is deemed a misdemeanor and is punishable by up to six months in prison or a $500 fine.

Rhode Island is one of only a handful of states to have such a requirement, according to idrivesafely.com, an online drivers’ education site that describes the law as “a powerful indicator of the potential role of government in legislating morality.” (The other states listed are: Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Vermont.)

Reform attempts fail

In 2013, Freedom Center pushed for a law that would require criminal intent for prosecution on some of the more minor and obscure offenses listed in the state criminal statute. Repeated attempts to pass the law have failed, according to Katz.

Brown favors legislation that would set a Joint Committee of the Repealer to review questionable laws and recommend ones for repeal. It passed the Senate this year but never made it beyond the House Judiciary Committee where it was held for further study.

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“I was unable to move it beyond that,” said Edwards, the principle House sponsor.

Edwards said he heard of the idea from a Kansas lawmaker at a conference for legislators held in San Diego in 2013. His version makes an important tweak: instead of creating a new executive office, it puts responsibility for repeal on the General Assembly itself. “I don’t think we need to add another administrative branch to government,” Edwards said.

His plan doesn’t even require the hiring of any new full-time staff. Instead, he said culling through the statutes to weed out outdated laws is a perfect task for legislative staff when the House and Senate are not in session.

A number of other bills were proposed this session that would have taken criminal law to further ridiculous lengths, according to Katz. Some examples he provided: pet hoarding (S5504), making it illegal to have trees and scrubs that annoy neighbors (S0333), and requiring state-approved arbitrators for internal condominium disputes (H5429).

“Needless to say, many more of these bills are proposed than passed.  (All of the above passed at least one chamber.) The political process does take time, after all, but the bills reducing the scope of freedom in the Ocean State far outnumber those that would repeal restrictions,” Katz said.

Critics: Symptoms of larger problems

Some suggest that the many obsolete or absurd laws still in effect are a symptom of a larger problem.

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“The most antiquated example is marijuana,” Mann said, comparing state marijuana laws to Prohibition-era restrictions on alcohol. “People are still going to jail for marijuana.”

While the law has caught up with contemporary sensibilities in some areas: such as the decriminalization of possession of small amounts and the legalization of medical marijuana, other areas of the law lag, according to Mann. For example, possession can land someone who is on probation back in jail, he said.

A move towards full legalization of marijuana failed in this year’s legislative session.

Mann’s likewise skeptical about the drinking age, asking if anyone really believes that college students are waiting until 21 to start drinking.

Katz, on the other hand, worries about further government limits on political speech.

“For example, S0384, which passed the Senate but died in the House would have expanded the requirements for politically active citizens to register and file reports, forbidding them from running for office if they run afoul of the regulations and owe fines. A story on your site today illustrates how people organizing on important political questions might be contacted by the state government to let them know that they’re coming up to the line of the law. Others are less fortunate and only find out that their civic engagement has been illegal when somebody files a complaint,” Katz said.

Laws regulating the speed of horses on highway or banning duels speak to a broader obsoleteness throughout state laws which have yet to catch up with modern technology, according to Gio Cicione, an attorney who is chairman of the Stephen Hopkins Center for Civil Rights, a libertarian-leaning institution.

He pointed to a proposed law that would have required registration and annual licensing fees for Uber and Lyft drivers. “In the age of Uber and Lyft we’re still regulating cab drivers like it’s 1950. These $22,000 per year workers are paying the high cost of the regulatory burden because we as a state have a persistent fear of repealing any law, no matter how obviously absurd it has become,” Cicione said. 

Tips on potential corruption at the local or state level, misspending, abuse of power, and other issues of public interest can be sent to [email protected] Follow Stephen Beale on Twitter @bealenews


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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