Weird Utah Laws

Nonsense Clutters Code Book; Weird Laws Clutter the Utah Code

Salt Lake Tribune/January 18, 1998
By Dan Harrie and Judy Fahys

One Utah law makes it a crime to curse on a bus. Another extends hunting rights to people who are blind or quadriplegic.

Discriminating unfairly in the purchase of milk, cream or butterfat is a crime. And prosecutors can seek death for anyone who kills an on-duty poultry inspector.

Then there's a whole body of state law that, if enforced, would put a sizable portion of the state's adult population in jail for having sex.

For example, fornication (sexual intercourse between consenting but unmarried adults) is a class B misdemeanor punishable by six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

With so many ludicrous, outdated or unenforceable laws already on the books, some people wonder why Utah's 104 legislators don't spend some time scaling back the dense Utah Code.

Instead, lawmakers are poised to expand it.

The 1998 Legislature begins its 45-day run Monday with approximately 900 bills in the hopper -- many of them proposing new laws or additions to existing statutes.

The number of bills is expected to top 1,000 before the session is over -- well short of the 1994 record of 1,309 but more than last year's 992.

``The second year of the [two-year legislative] cycle, people tend to put in more legislation and have more requests,'' says Richard Strong, director of the Office

of Legislative Research and General Counsel.

Libertarian Party Chairman Jim Dexter says lawmakers are going the wrong direction.

``I would like to see a law that would say every time you pass a law, you have to take another off the books,'' suggests Dexter.

Lawmaking should be limited to behavior that directly harms another person, he says, adding that anything beyond that is ``so much meddling.''

``It is the [conservative] Eagle Forum cleaning up America one curse at a time,'' says Dexter.

Civil-rights attorney Brian Barnard has some candidates for the stupid-law scrap heap: statutes making it a crime to commit adultery, sodomy or fornication.

``If the government wanted to enforce that last one, our courts would be full of nothing but fornicators,'' says Barnard, who notes that about half the states already have removed similar statutes from their books.

``It's clearly an invasion of peoples' privacy and an imposition

of one person's moral standards upon another.''

Barnard has brought several federal lawsuits aimed at uprooting the state sex laws, but most have been thrown out on grounds that there was no legitimate threat of


Still, he is convinced it will be the court, not the Legislature, that will remove archaic sex laws because

of the politics involved. ``If there's an individual legislator who says `repeal this law,' he or she would be crucified and accused of

destroying the morals of American society,'' says Barnard.

Prosecutors, too, worry about deadwood in the Utah Code.

``It's astounding to me what's in there,'' says Paul Boyden, deputy Salt Lake County district attorney.

``My idea of a stupid law is one that can't be enforced,'' adds Boyden. ``But that is more a bad law than a silly one.

``It's a dangerous thing because sometimes people get an expectation of the criminal-justice system to solve a problem that it can't solve.''

Boyden says the worst-case scenario is when a portion of the public demands enforcement of a law that the majority opposes.

``Then you do have a problem. Everyone is yelling at the district attorney for not filing a charge against somebody and the DA doesn't file because he knows he can't get a conviction,'' Boyden says.

Bigamy is a serious offense -- a third-degree felony carrying a maximum 5-year prison term and $5,000 fine. But prosecutors have not attempted to generally enforce those laws in 40 years despite estimates there are more than 30,000 polygamists in Utah.

Other gems:

-- A drive-by shooting could get you five years in jail and a $5,000 fine, but you could spend 15 years in prison and pay $10,000 for altering the license plate stickers on your car.

-- Parents can give written permission to teachers to spank their children. Despite that all 40 school districts prohibit corporal punishment by policy, legislators have refused to repeal the law.

-- First cousins may marry, but only if they are beyond child-bearing years.

-- It is slander -- punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine -- to falsely accuse a female

of being unchaste.

-- Raffles are defined in the law as illegal lotteries. But this particular form of gambling is routinely used by nonprofit organizations and charities to raise funds.

-- Utah law still authorizes an ``abortion litigation trust account,'' created to accept private donations to pay for defense of the state's strict 1991 anti-abortion law. The account hasn't received a cent in years and the abortion law has been overturned by the courts.

-- Night clubs may only be licensed to serve alcoholic beverages if they promise they are a real club or association, and not a business out to make a profit. Apparently, lying is not a crime.

Defense attorney Edward Brass has a simple solution for all these ludicrous laws: ``Junk 'em.''

Even lawmakers agree some laws are plain ludicrous.

``There's a bunch of them out there,'' says Rep. Afton Bradshaw, R-Salt Lake City.

Her least favorite: designation of

the Dutch oven as the state cooking pot, legislation that was passed just last year.

But why hold back? What about sections of state law that establish the state fruit (the cherry), the state rock (coal) and the state fish (Bonneville cutthroat trout)? And why overlook the famed state astronomical symbol, the Beehive Cluster?

Bradshaw says lawmakers can't help but feel some pressure when constituents seek to make their mark on state law. The cherry designation, for instance, was requested last year by elementary-school students who made passage of the law a class project.

``That's hard to turn down,'' Bradshaw says. ``You don't want to disappoint the kids even though it [the proposed legislation] is silly.''

Byron Harward, a recently retired representative from Provo, acknowledges that some laws simply go too far.

``Unfortunately, we have a tendency as people to want government to fix things,'' says Harward, whose company publishes the Utah Code.

During his 10 years of service in the Legislature, he remembers times when laws were passed out

of frustration (like the one that set a limit on the level of the Great Salt Lake) and out of a sense of helpfulness (like the one to regulate the ``Moonwalker'' amusement-park ride). But he does not recall any legislation passed as a joke.

``There isn't a law out there that was not passed in all seriousness,'' he says.

Lawmakers did, however, come close to mocking their own labors last year when the House passed a resolution proposing to conduct a wilderness-feasibility study of filmmaker Robert Redford's Sundance Resort. Senators killed the measure, which was intended as a public knuckle-rapping of Redford for supporting President Clinton's creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah.

Although the Utah Code may be peppered with silly laws, it sadly is not alone in that category.

``The feds are actually worse,'' says Brass, the Salt Lake City defense attorney.

Federal law, he points out, makes it a crime to imitate Smokey the Bear or Woodsy the Owl. It also makes it illegal to carry a set of wooden teeth across state lines.

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