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Does Anyone Get Arrested For Breaking Those Weird Old Laws? This Man Did

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We’ve all heard of bizarre old laws that have managed to stay on the books decades and even centuries after they are relevant. You know the kind: Doughnut holes were once illegal in Leigh, Nebraska, and in order for a cucumber to be legally designated a pickle in Connecticut, it must bounce.

Whatever inspired the law is long gone, but because no one has bothered to go back and clean up the books, these ridiculous offenses could technically still get you arrested—which actually happened in at least one case.

In 1998, Timothy Boomer was canoeing on the Rifle River in Michigan when he took a tumble. Boomer let loose a string of curse words, as one might do when suddenly dumped into freezing cold water.

Unfortunately for Boomer, in 1897 Michigan passed a law making it illegal to curse around the delicate ears of women and children. When the canoeist spewed his shocking string of swear words, a mother and her two kids happened to be within earshot. An officer ticketed him, and when he went to court over the matter, a jury actually convicted him: Boomer was fined $75 and sentenced to four days of community service, though the offense carried a maximum sentence of 90 days in jail.

Luckily for Boomer, cooler heads eventually prevailed when he appealed his sentence. Michigan’s Court of Appeals overturned the conviction in 2002, with Judge William Murphy writing:

Allowing a prosecution where one utters ‘insulting’ language could possibly subject a vast percentage of the populace to a misdemeanor conviction. We find it unquestionable that [the law], as drafted, reaches constitutionally protected speech, and it operates to inhibit the exercise of First Amendment rights.

Boomer may have gotten off, but let this be a lesson to all of us: If you’re trying to pass off an unbounceable pickle in Connecticut, expect to pay the consequences.

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This Just In
How Much Does a Missing Comma Cost? For One Dairy in Maine, $5 Million
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Copy editors aren’t the only ones who should respect the value of the Oxford comma. Since 2014, a dairy company in Portland, Maine has been embroiled in a lawsuit whose success or failure hinged on the lack of an Oxford comma in state law. The suit is finally over, as The New York Times reports, and die-hard Oxford comma-lovers won (as did the delivery drivers who brought the suit).

The drivers’ class action lawsuit claimed that Oakhurst Dairy owed them years in back pay for overtime that the company argues they did not qualify for under state law. The law reads that employees in the following fields do not qualify for the time-and-a-half overtime pay that other workers are eligible for if they work more than 40 hours a week:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

(1) Agricultural produce;

(2) Meat and fish product; and

(3) Perishable foods

Notice that it says the “packing for shipment or distribution” and not “packing for shipment, or distribution of.” This raised a legal question: Should dairy distributors get overtime if they didn’t pack and distribute the product?

The case eventually made its way to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which ruled that the lack of comma made the law ambiguous enough to qualify the drivers for their overtime pay, overturning the lower court’s verdict that the state legislature clearly intended for distribution to be part of the exemption list on its own.

In early February, the company agreed to pay $5 million to the drivers, ending the lawsuit—and, sadly, preventing us from ever hearing the Supreme Court’s opinions on the Oxford comma.

Future delivery drivers for the dairy won’t be so lucky. Since the comma kerfuffle began, the Maine legislature has rewritten the statute. Instead of embracing the Oxford comma, though—as we at Mental Floss would recommend—lawmakers decided to double down on their semicolons. It now reads:

The canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distributing of:

(1) Agricultural produce;

(2) Meat and fish products; and

(3) Perishable foods.

Come on, guys. What do you have against the serial comma?

[h/t The New York Times]

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environment
California's Proposed Straw Ban Won't Actually Threaten Restaurant Employees With Jail Time
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Drinking straws are easy to find at eateries, but not so much in recycling bins. To curb pollution, California lawmaker Ian Calderon introduced a bill in January that would reduce plastic straw use in restaurants. Thanks to the measure's wording, it caused an uproar, Munchies reports. As it currently reads, restaurant employees would face $1000 fines or jail sentences of up to six months if they provide a straw to a customer unasked.

Calderon, the majority leader of the California State Assembly, says that the bill wasn’t meant to be so harsh. He chalked its language up to miscommunication, explaining to The Washington Post that the California Office of Legislative Counsel drafted the bill into a state health code section with jail penalties. They didn’t have time to fix it, and Calderon planned to amend the bill’s wording before it reached a committee. (He still intends to remove its criminal penalties.)

Backlash aside (one Republican politician called for people to mail Calderon their straws), Calderon simply wanted to introduce a measure that required sit-down restaurants to adhere to a straws-upon-request policy. Fast-food restaurants, cafés, and delis wouldn’t have to adhere to the guideline.

“We need to create awareness around the issue of one-time use plastic straws and its detrimental effects on our landfills, waterways, and oceans,” Calderon said in a statement. “AB 1884 is not ban on plastic straws. It is a small step towards curbing our reliance on these convenience products, which will hopefully contribute to a change in consumer attitudes and usage.”

Straws play a small—yet undeniable—part in our world’s ever-growing plastic waste problem. They typically wind up in landfills, and can end up in the ocean if proper disposal methods aren’t followed. This harms marine life, as fish and other creatures can mistake bits of broken-down straws for food.

Cities in California, including Manhattan Beach, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Cruz, have implemented their own versions of a straw ban. Berkeley and Los Angeles might soon follow suit, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. As for Calderon’s bill: It still needs to be revised, voted on, and approved. So nothing’s set in stone (or plastic) for now.

[h/t Munchies]

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