Should You Be in Jail? - David Raney

            Early in William Boyle’s novel A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself, a teen looks through her CDs: “Mariah Carey… Destiny’s Child… Mary J. Blige… That last one she stole, on a dare from her friend Jessica Ruiz. Put it under her shirt and just walked right out of the store.” Boyle’s colorful characters commit much worse offenses, some in the service of organized crime ‒ which, let me say at the start, I have no experience with ‒ but the passage reminded me of the time I stole an LP from a mall store. It wasn’t for my prodigious collection but for a Christmas present, of all things, which doesn’t mitigate the stupidity in the least. Sure, I was a minor, and it would’ve taken $500 to qualify as a felony ‒ which back then meant boosting 80 albums ‒ but even so, what the hell was I thinking?
            I wasn’t. But that memory-jogging moment, in a novel that treats questions of what’s justifiable and not, illegal or should be, got me thinking.
            I’ve done plenty of things contrary to the law, as you have: speeding, jaywalking (which can cost you up to $250 in New York or LA), glancing at my phone while driving, parking in the wrong place while I grab a coffee. Ticketable offenses. Also, slightly sterner stuff, if the letter of the law were to be strictly applied. Trespassing, for instance ‒ my brother and I used to run all over people’s lawns as kids, taking shortcuts, no doubt disturbing the peace for good measure. I wasn’t the “grifter and vandal at 10, 11, 12, 13” that writer Michael Lewis says he was, but when he mentions his habit of snapping off hood ornaments, it prompts another misty memory. I’m pretty sure I did that once too ‒ a Mercedes, I believe. Also streaking. (It was the 70s.)
            None of which makes me particularly proud, but I have to say none of it bothers me a great deal, either. Of the things I’ve done that I truly regret, not one was illegal.
            You’ve played the odds with the law, too, and so have your friends and loved ones and coworkers if they’re honest. Not murder, rape or burglary, I trust, although I read the other day that 80% of burglaries aren’t committed by professionals, and one in every 1000 strangers has killed someone. (I do not want to know if this includes soldiers.) I recently asked a friend if he had his own LP story, and he wrote back: “Can of spray paint from a hardware store. Neighbor kid showed me how to pull it off. Had to have it to paint a model I was working on. Still feel guilty.” That reminded me, for the first time in decades, of lifting a candy bar from Newstead’s, a shop across the street from my elementary school run by a lady who seemed 100 at the time but was probably younger than I am now. Or maybe I only thought about it. There was no CCTV in the 1890s, so I guess we’ll never know.
            Crimes well beyond the Snickers level can lose that same battle with time. Most U.S. jurisdictions have no statute of limitations on murder, often child sex offenses as well, but just about every other felony carries an expiration date like milk. Twenty years for theft of artwork, ten for arson. The theory isn’t that we agree on some specified anniversary to pretend X never happened, or simply forgive and forget. It’s more prosaic than that, a sort of triage: evidence gets harder to come by, confessions less likely, until it’s no longer worth court or police time to pursue. We all play the odds in different ways.
            Next time you’re with friends, ask if there are candy bars or paint cans in their past. I’m willing to bet there are, though they may be too embarrassed to admit using their cousin’s Netflix account, drinking underage, smoking weed in the wrong state, burning bootleg CDs (remember those?), not reporting tips. I’d be tempted to add “Haven’t we all?” to any such confession except I recently ran across a list of minor crimes we supposedly “all do every day” which included “Having sex in a public place.” So perhaps I shouldn’t presume.
            Still, according to one estimate the average American breaks the law 260 times a year. That’s five times a week, as often as we go to work. Civil liberties lawyer Harvey Silvergate claims it’s three felonies a day, in a book by that title. If that strikes you as absurd, consider Yale law professor Stephen Carter’s estimate that 70% of Americans have done something that could lead to imprisonment ‒ in part because there are 300,000 such crimes so “anyone could become ensnared.” Three hundred thousand? Carter’s conclusion: “Too many laws carry too hefty a penalty.”
            That 70% figure was fact-checked by other lawyers, most of whom concurred, one commenting that “crimes of recklessness,” in particular, are “seldom detected because no harm accrues.” Another agreed there are simply too many laws to keep up with, remarking, “I’ve violated imprisonable offenses while fishing.”
            Putting aside my idiot-kid self and crimes of passion ‒ unthinking by definition ‒ what are we thinking when we break a law? Is it “Worth the risk, that’s never enforced” or “People like me don’t go to jail for this”? When it’s not childish stupidity or ignorance, is it need, greed, laziness? I like Bertrand Russell’s take on it. In his 1950 Nobel Prize speech he called out two motives for “human malfeasance,” the first being acquisitiveness, which he thought

            has its origins in a combination of fear with the desire for necessaries. I once befriended
            two little girls from Estonia, who had narrowly escaped death from starvation in a
            famine. They lived with my family, and of course had plenty to eat. But they spent all their
            leisure time visiting neighboring farms and stealing potatoes, which they hoarded.
            Rockefeller, who in his infancy had experienced great poverty, spent his adult life in a
            similar manner.

            I might have guessed that one, but probably not the second: “Experience shows that escape from boredom is one of the really powerful desires of almost all human beings.” Perhaps boredom is universal, at least for those with the luxury, but legal codes aren’t, so your personal stance on The Law must take into the account that you’ve almost certainly broken one, probably this week, that you didn’t even know existed.
            Do you hang air fresheners or fuzzy dice from your rearview mirror? In some states, including New Jersey and Pennsylvania, you’re a criminal. What about hosting poker games or movie nights with friends? Ditto. Pretty sure you’ve sung “Happy Birthday” in public at least once, and if you also saw fit to curse at that party, or carry a Sharpie, you might be going down on multiple counts. Same in Oklahoma for eavesdropping or repeating gossip, and don’t even think about putting an upholstered couch on your porch in Colorado. This was intended to curb college students’ penchant for lighting furniture on fire, but apparently it applies off campus as well.
            It may help to know it isn’t just Americans with this head-scratching stuff. Cursing in public breaks the law in Toronto, too, and in all of Australia. Are you British? Don’t fly a kite or beat a rug in the street, vacuum after 1 pm on Sunday, or “handle salmon in suspicious circumstances,” whatever that might mean. And you can forget about walking into Parliament in a suit of armor ‒ that’s been illegal since 1313.
            In law, though. as in so many fields, America does seem to have a little corner on crazy. Sex (big surprise) plays a part. Most states prohibit the public display of genitalia, and fair enough, but Oregon outlaws it only “with the intent of arousing sexual desire.” How would you gauge that, exactly? In Virginia, where I used to live, you’re breaking the law if people can see you naked even by looking into your house. So, the offense isn’t spying on personal property but leaving the shower without remembering to draw the blinds. In Minnesota it’s illegal to sleep naked. (How would you… never mind.) And in more than half of U.S. cities you aren’t allowed to lie down in public, naked or otherwise, intent to arouse or not. You might think this would exclude the city of Virginia Beach ‒ because, you know, the beach? ‒ but you’d be mistaken.
            And that isn’t even the truly batshit stuff. Ever tapped your foot, or otherwise kept time to music, in a tavern in New Hampshire? Sung off key in North Carolina? You’re up the creek. You’ll also want to think twice about whistling underwater in West Virginia, putting coins in your ear in Hawaii, or wearing a moustache in Louisiana if you have a “tendency to habitually kiss other humans” — or in Alabama if it “might tend to cause laughter in church.” Finally, check your local laws before sending someone a surprise pizza; you could be looking at a $500 fine.
            No doubt most of these laws haven’t been enforced in decades, and I would wager most law professionals don’t know they exist. So why are they still around? Again, it’s more a matter of time and money than misty legal theory. To invalidate old laws we must pass new ones, in some cases declaring the others unconstitutional, and there are just too many current laws and lawbreakers to keep up with.
            Given the abiding strangeness of so many laws, and the wide divergence in their application across time, place and demographics, I don’t think it’s specious to ask a tree-falls-in-the-forest question: Are you a criminal if you break a law but don’t get caught? What if you do but the law is outdated, plainly unfair or just insane?
            Think about that phrase a moment. If you break a law, is the law broken? That usage is much older than lay down the law, which is redundant anyway since law itself means a thing “laid down, fixed.” But no law, new or old, good or bad, is laid down by gods, only by humans, arguably as flawed as those of us who break them.
            Respect for the law is necessary, of course, for any civil society to work. I’ve never been glad to get a traffic ticket, but I’m happy if the idiot who cuts me off does, so I swallow my curses and pay. And I certainly don’t want my kids indiscriminately breaking laws. But if they should take a principled stand on one, even getting arrested in a peaceful protest, it would make me proud. Because plenty of laws are broken — not in the stupid way they’re written but in the selective way they’re applied. In the end, if we don’t think about that enough, our laws are no longer ours.

David Raney is a writer and editor living with his family (dogs included) north of Atlanta. He has lived in New York and Virginia, too, and loves to go farther afield whenever life allows, preferably places with trees and water. He’s interested in basically everything, and when, inevitably, a topic or idea gets under his skin and starts to show up everywhere he looks or listens, he writes an essay to explain it to himself and anyone else who might be interested. Often, it’s about how we connect with those curious humans we share the world with, or how we might try to understand ourselves, which he’s begun to suspect are the same.