At each level of government, we have laws that are either so obscure or outdated that they are ridiculous and/or no longer enforced. These laws are often laws that are incredibly over specific or souvenir laws from times gone by.
We are always in danger of new overly-specific laws that will quickly fall out of use or be unenforceable. These can range from local ordinance codes — something Port Washington should consider in it's approach to the , as an example — all the way to any state laws reflecting the danger of the day.
Wisconsin is quickly approaching the one-year anniversary of our specific anti-texting law. In May of 2010, Gov. Jim Doyle signed the law making texting while driving an offense punishable by a fine of up to $400; the law took effect on Dec. 1, 2010.
The thing about this law is that it already existed, albeit less specifically. Without the addition of any language to the law, it already provided a fine of up to $400 for any person driving a motor vehicle while "so engaged or occupied as to interfere with the safe driving of such vehicle."
So, even though texting was already illegal in Wisconsin, there was enough of a push to make the illegal conduct illegal that we pushed it as a political agenda. Our legislators used the whole of state resources to push this agenda through the capital. And what happened? We didn't increase a fine. We didn't make it a new crime. We made it specific.
How has this law fared in the last year?
According to reports in the Appleton Post Crescent, the law has led to very little enforcement action by the state police agencies. Through September of this year, the state patrol reports only 162 arrests for texting while driving since December, from all of the police agencies in Wisconsin combined. And yet, this was a pressing issue that used our lawmaking resources for months on end.
The fact is that we have a number of existing useless or ridiculous laws on the books as it is. This summer, debate began among legislators about a relic law dating to our dairy-protection days. Specifically, this has to do with butter and its substitutes. State law still includes a misdemeanor offense, punishable by up to six months in jail (one year for a second offense) for a restaurant owner that serves margarine or other butter substitutes at a table, unless specifically requested by a customer. It sounds ridiculous, but the law is plain on the books.
Further, a similar penalty exists if any state institution, including a school or prison, serves a butter substitute, except upon medical needs of the specific individual involved.
Relic laws in Wisconsin range from the questionable to the unenforceable. Livestock have the right-of-way on all public highways. It is a criminal misdemeanor for camping on the side of a highway without permission. It is a class I felony to commit adultery in Wisconsin. It is illegal to make or cause someone's phone to repeatedly ring, with intent to harass any person.
In other words, if you want to get a friend in trouble by calling his cell phone when he should have his phone off, or if you simply want to call someone to raz them about losing at fantasy football — you could face a fine.
If you have the physical ability to work and do not seek employment, you could be convicted of a class C misdemeanor. It is also illegal to earn your income "as a fortune teller or similar impostor."
Mostly, these laws are harmless, because they are simply not enforced. However, sometimes these poorly written or relic laws can be twisted and given a new life when later changes to society make them relevant again. An interesting example is that of same-sex marriage.
In Wisconsin, there is a statute and constitutional amendment that bans legal status for same-sex marriage. The constitutional amendment was passed in 2006, around the same time that other states were recognizing and sanctioning same-sex marriages. Of its own, the solution for same sex couples in Wisconsin appeared simple — get married out of state and move back home. This, however, triggered jeopardy under a law dating back more than two decades. Under Wisconsin law, it is a criminal misdemeanor, punishable by up to nine months in jail, to attempt to thwart the state's marriage laws by entering into an out-of-state marriage that is illegal in Wisconsin, provided the couple are and intend to be Wisconsin residents.
Although I am not aware of any prosecutions for same-sex marriage under this old law, it certainly is factor that a couple may consider. The same-sex marriage issue is one that is still being debated in courts, and certainly would be clearer without this criminal law in the way of couples who wanted to leave the state to get married where it is allowed.
The fact is that we, as a state, already have too many laws on the books. Wisconsin has 464 different chapters of statutes, which does not include regulations — laws written by agencies to help interpret and apply the statutes written by our legislators. Lawmakers are pressured to write laws for the sake of writing laws and addressing emotional issues that may not last beyond the issue in front of them. Agencies are pressured to write regulations to help clarify the laws and make them enforceable.
Crafting well-written laws and ordinances is very important. Failure to do so can lead to twisted uses — as in the same-sex marriage situation — or useless laws that sit for decades without being used. Our state and city leaders should seriously consider whether new ordinances are wise or necessary, or whether simple clarity and interpretation of the existing laws can accomplish the goals that we seek.