Published November 21, 2013
Can you wear a costume outdoors, without a government permit?
Not if you live in Walnut, Calif., or at least a half-dozen other towns in America – and they have some other eyebrow-raising laws as well.
Other laws in the affluent Los Angeles suburb include a ban on men cross-dressing without a government permit, one that forbids possession of a horse-racing tip sheet and yet another banning slingshots. City officials admit those laws, which were added in 1959 when the city was incorporated, are outdated.
“They’re a little antiquated -- that’s what it is,” city spokeswoman Fabiola Huerta told FoxNews.com. “At times, some ordinances are overlooked and are not deleted from the Municipal Code once they are outdated. These ordinances have not been enforced and will be subject to a code cleanup in the upcoming year.”
But not all of the rules will necessarily be repealed. Some sound silly, but may have a reasonable justification.
“I think that [the rule against costumes] has to do with safety. We don’t want someone walking into a bank with a masquerade disguise,” Huerta said.
Experts say the depth of regulation in Walnut is not unique.
“There are many obsolete and/or absurd statutes and ordinances… throughout the country,” Harvey Silverglate, a civil liberties lawyer, told FoxNews.com. He is the author of “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent,” which argues that there are so many rules on the books that the average American unknowingly commits several felonies every day.
“I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why they are not all repealed. [In Massachusetts] they govern absurdities such as cursing in public,” Silverglate added.
Laws aren’t always left unenforced just because they seem strange. In Miami Shores, Fla., one couple was recently forced to destroy their front-yard garden due to a law that specifically bans vegetable growing. Fruit would have been fine, making it unclear what an officer of the law might have done about a tomato plant.
In York County, Va., a man tried farming oysters on land he owned that is zoned for agriculture. He obtained seven different types of permits for it, but the county is currently trying to shut his business down because he doesn’t also have a required “special use permit.” That case is currently pending before the state Supreme Court.
“These obsolete laws are not harmless,” Silverglate said. “They function as an excuse for law enforcement to arrest, and to harass, citizens who are doing nothing prosecutable, but who are technically violating laws that are either outmoded or clearly unconstitutional under modern standards.”
Walnut’s cross-dressing law is “clearly unconstitutional, and also absurd,” he said. The no-costumes rule might pass muster as a means of preventing crime, he said. But even that law could be challenged as “overly broad, and hence unconstitutional,” he said.
Laws regulating costumes, which also can be found on the books in Bay City, Mich.; Laredo, Texas; Franklin, Tenn.; Logansport, Ind.; Sylacauga, Ala., and South Brunswick, N.J., typically don’t grant exemptions, even for Halloween. That means a lot of children break the law at least once a year.
But not all quirky laws in Walnut are the vestiges of a bygone era. One from 1994 bans anyone from driving a delivery truck in town if it has graffiti on it. Another from 1970 bans women from serving food and showing cleavage. The law is careful to define cleavage as being revealed when a woman “exposes any portion of either breast below a straight line so drawn that both nipples and all portions of both breasts which have a different pigmentation than that of the main portion of the breasts are below such straight line.”
Another town law says if you have a handgun, it's illegal to even advertise or offer its sale without a sheriff's permit. Another bans all gambling in your own house. And if others are gambling there, it's also illegal for you to be there.
Huerta didn’t defend the laws, but she said none of them prevent Walnut from being a great place to live.
“In 2013, the City of Walnut ranked 49th in CNN Money Magazine’s ‘Best Places to Live,’” she said. “This high standard for residents’ quality of life is one of the largest Council decision-making priorities when adopting ordinances.”
Silverglate said Walnut would be even nicer if the local criminal code got an overhaul.
“These laws have no valid function any longer, but they are an excuse for invalid law enforcement techniques,” he said.
The author of this article can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter at @maximlott.