6 Laws You've Broken Without Even Realizing It
None of us can claim with a straight face that we've never done anything illegal, be it speeding, drunkenly stealing a shrink-wrapped pickle from a bowling alley or hunting the homeless for sport. But on the whole, we're upstanding citizens. After all, it's not like we're out there breaking the law on a daily basis.
Wanna bet? Because all of the stuff below is illegal in most of, if not all of, the United States. If you live outside the U.S., you need to double check to see if you can get jail time for ...
Connecting to Unsecure Wi-Fi Networks
Due to the current popularity of tiny computers and man's relentless desire to watch nudity absolutely everywhere, Wi-Fi hotspot usage is on the rise. Unfortunately, with that comes the problem of people, knowingly or not, connecting to unsecure wireless networks without permission. It's not like hacking the freaking Pentagon here -- if you're in public, your computer will automatically look for a signal and, if there's no security (such as a password) to get online, you can connect to it in seconds. Say you're on a park bench a block away from Starbucks, but their signal juuust reaches you. So, you log in and check your email.
And by "email" we mean "hardcore dwarf BDSM porn."
Hell, if they left it unsecured, they probably WANT people to use it, right? And even if not, it's not like it can get you thrown in prison.
Oh wait ... it totally can.
"I told you, all but one of those dwarfs consented!"
What Did I Do?!
Say hello to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which makes it a crime to gain "unauthorized access" to a computer or a website. What does "unauthorized access" actually mean? Nobody knows. But the law says it applies to wireless routers. Luckily, law enforcement has lately become more lenient in enforcing "Wi-Fi squatting" in relation to the CFAA. So they probably won't bust you for the federal crime of stealing wireless Internet (even though they totally could, if they some day feel like it), but it doesn't matter, because that's where your state's laws kick in.
"Castle Doctrine applies to your home Wi-Fi network, right?"
Almost every state out there has regulations against unlawful access to computers and networks -- a third-degree felony that carries with it a prison sentence of at least two years and up to 10 grand in fines. Yes, arrests for stealing Wi-Fi are rare because it's difficult to catch someone in the act. But don't go thinking that your Internet habits definitely won't get you shanked in the prison courtyard someday. We know of at least four cases, from Florida, Illinois, Michigan and Alaska, where people were arrested for using someone else's wireless Internet.
While ultimately none of them were charged with a felony, one man got slapped with a $400 fine and 40 hours of community service for using the unauthorized Wi-Fi connection ... to check his email.
One of these men is guilty of rape. The other was caught playing WoW behind an Arby's.
Singing "Happy Birthday to You" in Public
If you ever had a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese's, you probably have endless fond memories: the cardboard pizza, the shitty, half-broken arcade games and soda served in the tiniest paper thimbles ever created. OK, maybe it kind of sucked in retrospect. But it could have been worse. For example, your parents could get a subpoena to appear in court for being part of a public performance of "Happy Birthday to You," which as it turns out is totally illegal.
What Did I Do?!
It's copyrighted. Usually that would only affect people who are singing it while attempting to make a profit (the lady your dad hired to jump out of your birthday cake, for instance). However, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) requested that the Girl Scouts pay royalties for "Happy Birthday to You," and other songs they'd been singing around the campfire without a single stripper, or paying customer in attendance.
There must be SOME way to get at all that sweet cookie money.
Presumably thinking that this was a prank by the girls from the camp across the lake, the Girl Scouts consulted an attorney who found that the law applied to any "public performance." Going by the strict letter of the law, you have to pay anytime you sing the song "where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered."
"Sound familiar, shit bird?"
The first version of the popular birthday song, titled "Good Morning to All," was composed way back in 1868 by sisters Mildred and Patty Hill, before the Summy Company copyrighted it in 1935, together with the now-famous lyrics. Today, that copyright belongs to Time Warner, meaning that any restaurant or movie that wants to use the song where everyone can hear it must pay the company royalties.
Artists have a right to be compensated. Or, if they're dead and have no descendants,
a faceless corporation has the right to profit from their work.
You can still sing it legally in the privacy of your own home, and you will probably get away with singing it out in the open, provided that you're not on a reality TV show. Of course, if you're anything like most small business owners, you'll just pay up because you don't want to face Time Warner in court. Enough of them pay royalties that the song garners a cool $2 million dollars a year in royalties.
Or if you want to be extra safe, you can do what many restaurant chains do and just invent your own special version of the lyrics, assuming you don't mind looking and sounding like a stupid asshole.
"Today you left your mom's vagina, now why not visit South Carolina?"
As you may imagine, the PR shitstorm that followed the girl scouts fiasco caused ASCAP to back away and deny they were serious about that whole paying royalties thing. And a private birthday party getting ratted out is probably much less likely than a giant organization like the Girl Scouts. Of course, that cuts both ways, since in the case of the Girl Scouts it was public shame, not the law, that stopped any legal action. Don't count on it to save you.
Using Fake Names on the Internet
Here's an easy one. Everyone uses fake names online, be it on Facebook, Xbox Live or Gustav's Pornography Dungeon. And really, why should you give out your real identity to some random site when typing "Michael J Cocks" in the name field is both faster and more secure?
Maybe because using fake names on the Internet can get you arrested and charged with the federal crime of hacking?
What Did I Do?!
Oh, hey, look at that. It's the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act again, with its vague wording that you've probably violated over and over again in the last 24 hours.
"Sorry, sir, but your DC Universe Online handle technically counts as a false identity."
Due to the that line that makes any "unauthorized access" illegal, it can be anything from illegally accessing the White House's website and exploding the president's toilet (computers can do that, right?) to using a false name during an online registration process. After all, in both cases you're gaining access to a computer in a way that its owner didn't authorize, which constitutes "hacking" and is, according to the letter of the law, punishable with five to 20 years in prison.
In 2010, Matthew Lacroix, a Rhode Island prison guard, was arrested for creating a fake profile of his boss on Facebook. Now, to be clear, it wasn't to proclaim his boss' love for Stargate fan fiction or to commit some kind of fraud. The profile just ... existed, so in the end, Lacroix was convicted simply of using "fraudulent information" (i.e. a fake name) and had to pay $500 to the Victims Indemnity Fund. A similar thing happened with Lori Drew, a 50-year-old woman who harassed a teenage girl over Myspace until she committed suicide (OK, maybe not THAT similar). It was back when cyber-bullying laws weren't in full effect, so Drew was charged with a misdemeanor under the CFAA regulations for creating a fake Myspace profile.
If you change your legal name to Bonertron69, they've got nothing on you.
The only reason Lacroix and Drew never faced felony charges was because they didn't know it was illegal to put fake personal information on the Internet. Though we have to say, we can't remember "I didn't know it was illegal!" exempting us from any other crimes. That's actually going to come in pretty damned useful.
"It's alright, officer! I just don't understand your local laws."
Betting With Friends
So, you're drinking away at the local bar, trying not to think about how your significant other shouted "Ray Romano" during sex last week, when you notice the game playing on the TV. Turning to your buddy, you bet him that the defending team will definitely make the next basket. They don't. You bet again and again, upping the ante each time. At the end of the night, you've bet and lost more than $2,000.
Angry at yourself, you get up to leave, when suddenly a SWAT team storms the place, pushes you to the ground and cuffs you.
"Is this about the dead hookers? It is, isn't it?"
What Did I Do?!
You see, all those bets you made violated the Illegal Gambling Act of 1970. According to the IGA, any betting that goes against state or local law, involves five or more people and has a revenue of at least $2,000 in one day constitutes an illegal gambling operation, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
By comparison, punching your wife warrants about a tenth of the jail time.
And that SWAT team/bar wager scenario we described above? That really happened. The guy's name was Sal Culosi, and in 2005 he was overheard in a bar by a Virginia cop betting with his friends on college football to the tune of like $50. The cop befriended Culosi, and over the course of a couple of months led him to raise the stakes until one day Culosi crossed the magical border of $2,000.
A SWAT team arrived at his doorstep to arrest him and shot him through the heart.
It turns out gambling really does cause violence. Police violence, but still.
Writing "Disturbing" Material
Are you an aspiring writer age 16 to 24? If so, how is your zombie story coming along? Seriously, even if you're not really into stuff like that, there must be some piece of "dark" writing you left behind somewhere, like a blog or a LiveJournal or a Facebook posting about some weird vampire Nazi dream you had or some moody lyrics you wrote back when you had a beard and a single pair of jeans.
Well, you better hope that no one finds what you've written "disturbing," because your goth phase might be breaking the law.
Honestly? We're OK with this one.
What Did I Do?!
Some state laws actually make it illegal to write about things that can freak other people out. Illinois, for example, has regulations against "disorderly conduct," which usually means stuff like prank calling 911, but can also apply to writing "disturbing fiction."
No, it doesn't even matter whether you make it public or not. If someone reads something you wrote and finds it reprehensibly soul-poisoning, you may face 30 days of jail time and a $1,500 fine.
And yet, Stephenie Meyer walks free.
In Kentucky, writing about a fictional military attack can result in a second-degree FELONY charge of making terrorist threats. And in Oklahoma, a completely made-up story wherein a person gets injured or killed can get you arrested for planning to cause serious bodily harm, the maximum penalty for which is 10 years in prison.
In 2007, a Chicago high school student named Allen Lee was arrested for disorderly conduct over a class writing assignment involving stream of consciousness where the students were supposed to write whatever came to their minds. Instead of page after page filled with "boobs" and "weed," Lee ended up with an unsurprisingly nonsensical jumble of words and phrases, including "Super Mario," "ballet" and four instances of "stab." After reading his assignment, Lee's teacher turned it in to the school officials, who collectively decided that they must expel the straight-A student and have him arrested. You know, before he goes on a writing spree.
"Call the police, we have a Code Kafka! Repeat, CODE KAFKA!"
Oklahoma high school student Brian Robertson found himself in an even more baffling situation in 2001, when he discovered an evacuation manual on the school computer and used it as a basis to write a story about a commando attack on his school. When his teacher discovered the story, Robertson was immediately suspended and arrested under the Oklahoma statute preventing "planning acts of violence." Though in the end the case was thrown out, Robertson missed a year of school and was fired from his job, which you may notice leaves him with both the knowledge and the motive to carry out his fictitious assault.
Owning a Permanent Marker
Let's say you're relaxing in the park one day when the cops come up and ask to talk to you. Apparently there was a string of muggings in the area and they'd like to search your bag. You agree because you've done no wrong and have nothing to hide, but also because they're cops and they have guns. Inside your bag, they find all the usual stuff: textbooks, pens, permanent markers, a mini flamethrower, the drug salvia and the insanely explosive compound tannerite. You know, nothing illegal.
Pleased with your law-abidingness, you reach to get your bag back when suddenly the cops grab you by the arm and haul you off to jail.
What Did I Do?!
Actually, it was about the permanent markers. According to basically every anti-graffiti state law out there, it is illegal simply to possess "broad-tipped indelible markers" or "aerosol cans" in a public place, because they can be used to commit acts of vandalism. You can find such regulations all over the United States, from Florida to New York to California, which also make it a crime to buy permanent markers for anyone under 18. California, remember, is a state where it is legal to buy weed if you have a doctor's note.
On the one hand, it's kind of understandable, seeing as in California alone the removal of graffiti costs millions of dollars each year. On the other hand, it also means you theoretically can spend up to a year in prison for holding outdoor arts and crafts classes for homeless orphans, and it technically makes any art school guilty of possessing contraband.
"Screw busting grow houses. Art class is where the real money is."
But That Will Never Happen to Me, Right?
Since a 2007 felony arrest for tagging, a reformed ex-graffiti artist from California, Cristian Gheorghiu, was arrested a number of times for breaking parole because the authorities kept finding "vandalism tools" in his apartment. There were stickers, posters, a computer and markers, which, according to the sheriff's office, clearly pointed to Gheorghiu's revived criminal activity, and not the fact that he's making a living nowadays selling legitimate art.
Put it on a canvas, and suddenly it's no longer offensive garbage.
Right now, these parole violations (aka "owning stuff") can make it illegal for Gheorghiu to possess even a ballpoint pen. But OK, the guy was on parole, so as long as you don't get arrested for vandalism or graffiti, carrying markers shouldn't be a problem, right?
Not exactly. Just take a look at the case of the 13-year-old from Oklahoma who was taken into custody by the police for allegedly writing on his desk, which violated an Oklahoma City ordinance against the possession of permanent markers.
Hope the jail time is worth it, clowndick.
To continue boning up on the bar exam, check out The 5 Most Popular Safety Laws (That Don't Work) and 6 Insane Laws We'll Need in the Future.
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