Have you handled fish in "suspicious circumstances," or kept your prescription medication in something other than its prescription bottle? Depending on where you are, you could unknowingly broken the law. From historical oddities to ordinances that are still being enforced, here are a few strange laws you might have broken, in a piece adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube.
1. Eating Fried Chicken With a Knife and Fork
If you're going eat fried chicken in Gainesville, Georgia, you might want to do so with your hands: Technically, you can be arrested for trying to eat fried chicken with a knife and fork. The ordinance was basically a joke passed in 1961 to drum up publicity for the town as the self-proclaimed Poultry Capital of the World. According to a local Gainesville paper, the law was never actually codified—but that doesn’t mean no one has ever been arrested for the offense. Back in 2009, Ginny Dietrick was celebrating her 91st birthday at a Gainesville restaurant when a police chief swooped in to arrest her. The officer had been playfully tipped off by one of Ginny’s friends. After the arrest, the town’s mayor—who was part of the set-up—immediately pardoned Ms. Dietrick and ordained her an honorary Georgia Poultry Princess.
2. Playing Bingo Without a Non-Profit License
One set of laws that certainly wasn’t made as a joke comes from North Carolina—where, apparently, games of Bingo are strictly regulated. In order to hold a game, you need to be a select non-profit organization with a Charitable Bingo License—it’s a Class I felony to operate a game with prizes without it. The law also states that you’re limited to holding a maximum of two games per week, and none of those games can be held within 48 hours of each other. No individual game can be longer than five hours. And for a game of Beach Bingo, prizes can’t exceed $10 in value.
The Tar Heel State takes its Bingo so seriously that the games fall under the jurisdiction of the same law enforcement arm that handles alcohol-, tobacco-, and gambling-related crimes. The laws are all about trying to curb illicit gambling.
3. Wrestling a Bear
The weirdest thing about some laws is that they ever needed to exist—like in Oklahoma, where people were wrestling bears at such an astonishing rate that the state had to step in and institute a fine and possible jail sentence for anyone caught grappling with a bear.
4. Eavesdropping and Repeating Gossip
In Oklahoma, it’s a misdemeanor to “[loiter] about any building, with intent to overhear discourse therein, and to repeat or publish the same to vex, annoy, or injure others.” That's right: In the Sooner State, you can get in trouble for eavesdropping and then engaging in some juicy gossip.
5. and 6. Spitting on the Sidewalk and Swearing at Sports Officials
In Massachusetts, spitting isn't just gross—you can get a $20 fine for doing it on the sidewalk. That’s less than half of the $50 fine you would receive if the state actually enforced its law forbidding people from swearing at players and officials at sporting events. If they did, things would be a lot more cordial every time the Yankees visited Fenway.
7. Cursing in Public
In states like Virginia, they go after people cursing in public in general—if you’re caught using foul language out in the open, you could be out $250. This isn’t just a U.S. phenomenon, either: Somewhat similar laws govern obscenity in Victoria, Australia; in India; and in the public parks of Toronto, Canada [PDF].
8. and 9. Blasphemy and Adultery
Massachusetts is also one of a handful of states in the country with laws on the books that punish blasphemy, a vestige of a time when religion played a bigger role in the law-making process. That might also explain why it’s technically still a Class-B misdemeanor to commit adultery in New York.
10. Printing and Distributing a Crime Comic
Laws have a knack for sticking around well after the world around them has changed. Take this one from Canada: Up until 2018, the law said “Every one commits an offence who ... makes, prints, publishes, distributes, sells or has in his possession for the purpose of publication, distribution or circulation a crime comic.” It was put on the books in the late 1940s when there was massive cultural concern about the effect of violent comic books.
11. Beating a Carpet on the Street
In 1839, lawmakers made it illegal to beat any carpet, rug, or mat on the streets of London; the law technically endures, though beating doormats is fine, as long as you do it before 8 a.m.
12. Handling Fish in "Suspicious Circumstances"
Around 150 years later, the UK established another one of the internet’s favorite laws to poke fun at: In 1986, a law was written that made it a crime for anyone to “[handle] salmon in suspicious circumstances.” It’s meant to go after illegal fisheries, but it certainly isn’t worded that way. The law was later amended to cover all types of fish.
13. Honking Your Car Horn Outside a Café
When it comes to silly laws, some don’t seem to have an obvious connection to, well, anything. In Little Rock, Arkansas, there’s actually language on the books that states: “No person shall sound the horn on a vehicle at any place where cold drinks or sandwiches are served after 9 p.m.”
14. Putting on a Puppet Show in a Window
Everyone knows how crowded the streets get in Manhattan—so it only makes sense that laws be put into place to avoid crowds from gathering around, say, a random performer operating without a license or a person making a spectacle around themselves by attempting to scale the side of a building. Well, it goes far beyond that: In New York City you could also go to jail for 30 days for putting on “any performance of puppet” from a window to entertain people outside.
15. Putting Upholstered Furniture On Your Porch
And in the University Hill section of Boulder, Colorado—the home of the University of Colorado Boulder—you can’t have a piece of upholstered furniture on your porch. No couches, no recliners, nothing. The law was an attempt to curb the student body’s proclivity for lighting said furniture on fire.
16. Using a Café's Wi-Fi From Your Car
In 2007, a Michigan man was prosecuted for using a café’s free wifi from his car. The problem is, the man never actually entered the café—he would just show up and use its internet from his car on a regular basis. A police officer eventually grew suspicious enough to look into it. Apparently, this was an infraction of a law forbidding anyone from using a computer network without authorization, and since the man never entered the café, there was no obvious authorization. The result: While he avoided jail time, he was fined $400 and was ordered to do 40 hours of community service.
The man got off light—technically, he could’ve been on the hook for a felony charge and up to $10,000 fine—because the judge was convinced that he didn’t even know he was committing a crime. Even the cop told a news station in the area, “I had a feeling a law was being broken, but I didn't know exactly what.”
A man in Florida was less fortunate—a similar incident there was counted as a third-degree felony.
17. Burning a CD for Your Friends
Remember in the early 2000s, when maybe you bought a CD and burned a dozen copies for your friends? Well, if you did do that, don’t ever admit to it: That was a violation of copyright law with a $250,000 fine.
18. Sharing Your Netflix Password
The 2020 equivalent of the burned CD is sharing passwords to subscription services like Netflix and Hulu. And while there’s no federal law banning that yet, there is a law on the books in Tennessee that forbids it. But don’t worry, they likely won’t be coming after you for using your mom's HBO Go login; this law is aimed at the people hacking accounts and selling logins in bulk.
19. Keeping Your Medication in Something Other Than Its Prescription Bottle
You know it's a crime to share your meds with your friends. But in a state like Maine, you could be committing a crime by even possessing your own prescription medication if it’s not in the same prescription bottle that it originally arrived in (though allowances have been made for commonplace alternatives to original packaging, like pill planners).
Perhaps you're wondering, why don't states and cities just repeal some of these very old and bizarre laws? As Georgia State University law professor Tanya Washington explained on Georgia Public Radio in 2018, it all boils down to the amount of time, and money, involved. Either a new law would need to be passed that invalidates the existing law, or someone who gets in trouble for breaking one of these laws would have to successfully challenge it in court and have a judge rule it unconstitutional.