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Quirky old laws clutter state's books

| Friday, Nov. 26, 2010

Emil Svetahor has worked for the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission for almost three decades and has yet to nab anybody trying to catch a fish with his mouth.

It's against the law in Pennsylvania to use your mouth, hands or dynamite to catch fish.

"It's not used that often. ... Sometimes people get frustrated trying to catch them and jump in, start throwing them up on shore," said Svetahor, law enforcement supervisor for the southwest region.

If he ever does find some angler with a trout in his mouth, he'll hand him a $100 fine, said Svetahor, of Berlin in Somerset County.

Pennsylvania has a number of old laws no longer enforced. It is illegal, for example, to sleep on a refrigerator outdoors. No man can buy alcohol without written permission from his wife.

The state periodically does a housecleaning of old bills, said Robert W. Zech Jr., director of the Legislative Reference Bureau in Harrisburg. The Legislature repealed a number of statutes in 1982 and 1992.

The laws, many of which date to the 1700s, can be difficult to research, said Joel Fishman, assistant director of the Allegheny County Law Library. Fishman said he's asked about the refrigerator law about once a year, "usually by a reporter."

Cleaning up more than 200 years of history can be a tedious process, said Ken Gormley, dean of the Duquesne University School of Law.

"You have a lot of outdated laws," he said.

Efforts to remove this "excess baggage" are important, though, Gormley said.

"It makes sense to keep on top of that. You may reach a danger zone where the legal clutter becomes an excuse not to follow the law," he said. "Legislators are receiving public funds to legislate. That includes maintaining a manageable system of public laws."

Jeff Koon and Andy Powell have tracked America's quirky laws for 12 years. Their site spawned a book, "You May Not Tie an Alligator to a Fire Hydrant: 101 Real Dumb Laws."

"We thought it might be a fleeting fad," said Koon 26, of Athens, Ga. "Looks like it's become a mainstay subject."

Powell said states that repeal old laws are to be commended. "You want a library of law that is relevant today," he said.

New York attorney Nathan Belofsky spent more than a year researching real laws that seem stranger than fiction.

"Up until the 1970s, you could be arrested for being ugly or disgusting in public," he said.

At the local government level, a number of Pennsylvania communities have odd statutes.

It's against the law in Allentown in Lehigh County for men to become aroused in public.

"We've never had to enforce it," said City Clerk Michael Hanlon, who believes the rule stemmed from "odd language" included in laws dealing with strip clubs.

More recently, the city took on ladies' undergarments, Hanlon said.

"Somebody wanted to ban the wearing of thongs in public ... and started a drive, a droopy drawers referendum," he said.

Pittsburgh, which once banned donkeys from riding trolley cars, updated its code book in the 1970s and got rid of many statutes, said City Clerk Linda Johnson-Wasler.

"I remember reading about pigs and cows crossing the road," she said.

It's against the law in Tarentum to tie a horse to a parking meter.

"It's also illegal to do it to a streetlight pole, but you can tie your dog to it," borough Manager William Rossey said.

The borough has not sought to remove the old statutes.

The cost of drafting the repeals and advertising them in these days of tight municipal budgets is prohibitive, Rossey said, noting: "Some things are better left alone."

Danville Borough in Montour County requires that all fire hydrants be checked one hour before fires. Mayor Ed Coleman said someone once asked about the fire hydrant law.

"It is goofy. But as far as I know, it's still on the books," said Coleman, who serves on a committee that is updating the borough's codes.

In Morrisville, Bucks County, women must obtain a permit to wear cosmetics.

"I'm aware of the statute," said Mayor Rita Ledger. "As a small borough, we are challenged when it comes to cleaning this stuff up."

Ledger, who acknowledges wearing makeup, said it's a two-edged sword. Enforcing the cosmetics law would require the borough to impose its rules on men's shaving.

"We are sworn to uphold the law," she said.

Additional Information:

That's illegal?

Pennsylvania isn't the only state with silly laws. Some from across the country:

Alabama: It is illegal for a driver to be blindfolded while operating a vehicle.

Arizona: Hunting camels is prohibited.

Illinois: Nuzzling or kissing your reptile is illegal.

Kentucky: Lawyers must swear under oath they have not engaged in duels.

Louisiana: Staging a sham wrestling event is not allowed.

Maine: Sea urchins and lobsters cannot be placed together aboard a boat.

New Hampshire: An official produce box must measure 2,162.89 cubic inches.

New York: Tongue-splitting must be done by a licensed medical professional.

South Carolina: It's illegal to fish with a yo-yo.

Vermont: Officials publish Best Management Practices for Resolving Human-Beaver Conflicts.


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