Ignorance of the law is no defense
We’ve all heard this legal maxim spouted a time or two, and most of us agree with its sentiment. At the same time, most laypeople understandably lack encyclopedic knowledge of local, state, and federal statutes and are therefore ignorant of thousands of laws.
While it may be obvious that it’s illegal to commit homicide, drive over the speed limit, and avoid paying taxes, it isn’t common knowledge that it’s illegal to sit on a sidewalk in Anchorage, Alaska or that it’s a felony for a woman to open her husband’s mail in Montana.
Hundreds of years of lawmaking in thousands of jurisdictions has led to countless bizarre and outdated laws all across America that we can’t help but not know. These laws are often antiquated ideas that haven’t been relevant for decades or parochial quirks that only apply in unique circumstances (or never at all). Although they typically go unenforced, it doesn’t change the fact that you are technically a lawbreaker if you commit these acts.
Let’s just focus on four examples that are probably broken by many people every single day.
Whether it’s in politics, pop culture, or our own personal lives, cheating on one’s spouse is commonplace and considered to be poor behavior.
But in Michigan, it’s not just frowned upon — it’s a felony. Under Section 750.30 of the state’s penal code, cheaters can be prosecuted for first-degree criminal sexual conduct, which comes with serious punishment. A judge recently affirmed that an extramarital affair in Michigan could indeed technically lead to life behind bars. So, if you’re in the Great Lake State, it’s best to avoid infidelity.
From Cohabitation to Incarceration
There are also bizarre laws that can get well-meaning unmarried folks into a world of trouble. In Florida, cohabitation with your romantic partner while not married is a second-degree misdemeanor that carries a fine of up to $500 or sixty days in the slammer. Section 798.02 of the state’s penal code states that a man and a woman “not being married to each other” that live and “lasciviously associate” together are criminals.
No Office for Non-Believers
Most middle school students are aware of the separation of church and state that sits prominently in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which is why Article IX of Tennessee’s state constitution is so strange. Section Two of the article states that anyone who doesn’t believe in God can’t hold public office. While it doesn’t specify which God and therefore allows for religious diversity of officeholders, it does make it against the law for atheists to be elected.
Sharing Netflix: Crime of the Twenty-First Century
Not to pick on Tennessee, but a recently enacted statute there has criminalized something surprising.
Do you ever share your Netflix or Rhapsody username and password with a friend so they can enjoy streaming music or movies on your dime? If you live in the Volunteer State, then you’re breaking the law. Depending on how charitable you’re being, allowing others to use your “entertainment subscription service” can get you charged with a misdemeanor resulting in a year in jail and a $2,500 fine or even a felony that comes with stiffer penalties.
Of course, the law was passed to curb a larger problem — piracy. But it probably makes lawbreakers out of thousands of Tennesseans.