A DISCUSSION OF LAW AND JOURNALISM

Don’t Chase a Pigeon in Massachusetts

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By Jennifer Williams

It’s been years since you’ve allowed yourself an escape from the daily grind, and you’ve decided to take some time off to enjoy a family trip. You’re looking for a destination that will be both relaxing and educational. In no time at all, you’ve decided that Massachusetts is the place to go.

So you make the necessary calls, schedule the necessary accommodations, and pack the necessary gear. And when you finally arrive, you’re ready to explore the Bay State.

Somewhere along the way, you find yourself on a quiet street with beautiful antique mansions. Naturally, it’s a perfect photo op. Steady the camera, set the timer, everyone smile, and flash, picture taken. You review the photo to make sure it’s perfect only to notice a group of pigeons gathering in the background. So you shoo them away and get ready to pose with your family again.

Next thing you know, you’re in jail. That’s right. Because, my friend, in the great state of Massachusetts, it’s a crime to kill or scare pigeons and you can be punished by a fine or imprisonment.

We recently came across an article on Boston.com that shone a spotlight on this and other surprising Massachusetts laws (that reminded us of a great piece about New York laws by the late Christopher Hitchens for Vanity Fair).

Did Boston.com have its facts right?  Was anyone ever charged with violating these crazy laws? We investigated.

Just as you’d expect, the criminal section of the Massachusetts General Law outlines the punishment for offenses like armed robbery and assault. Less expected:  a law against public boxing that’s been on the books, in some form, since 1896. Violate that law in Massachusetts and you can look forward to punishment by imprisonment for up to three months or a fine of up to $5,000 – or both.

In 1905, “John Mack and others” were accused of violating the law, after they hosted an exhibition featuring a boxing match with seating accommodations for over 1,500 spectators. The defendants argued that the match was a private one, as anyone wanting to see the brawl had to fill out a membership application to join a sports club. The Supreme Court of Massachusetts found them guilty, holding that the match was, in a practical sense, open to the public.

Another Massachusetts law that you might not know about: If you’re 16 years or older, and you yell a profane or slanderous statement at a sporting official, you could be out up to $50. One town, perhaps hoping for Pleasantville, has gone even further: a recent ordinance passed in Middleborough, Massachusetts allows police officers to fine anyone $20 for cursing in public.

So the Red Sox fan who expresses his frustration with an umpire’s call by yelling an expletive or two could be out $50. And then if he goes home to Middleborough and swears on the street (wouldn’t you, after getting a $50 ticket?) he could be fined another $20.

But it’s not likely.

A 1975 case decided by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts involved an unhappy customer at a department store who yelled at a saleswoman using profane language. The outburst led to the customer’s arrest and he was charged with disorderly conduct. The charges didn’t stick; the court found the profanity-laced language was protected by the First Amendment.

Some more things to watch out for when in Massachusetts:  Don’t sell candy containing a liquid or syrup with more than one percent of alcohol. If you do, you could be out up to $100. And if you find yourself in a beautiful park on a Sunday and think, this is the perfect place to host a fundraising baseball game, don’t. Charging for an unlicensed event could lead to a fine of up to $2000. (The idea is that Sunday is meant to be the day of rest).

There are many such laws in Massachusetts, and if you’ve spent some time there, our guess is you may have already broken one or two without knowing it. But as we all know, ignoratia juris non excusat.

Comments

2 Comments »

2 Responses

  1. Matt says:

    Here’s a crazy one: snoring is prohibited unless all bedroom windows are closed and securely locked.

  2. Don Dickson '84 says:

    Massachusetts’ liquor laws are (or at least were) similarly strange. My family visited Cape Code regularly in the 1960s and 1970s, and whenever my Dad went to the “package store” for a bottle of scotch, he was always required to fill out a form. The form requested not only his name and address and a description of his purchase, but also the “Reason For Purchase.” He always wrote “Snakebite.”

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