Earlier this year a friend and I spotted a bill with Andrew Jackson’s crumpled face staring up at us from the floor of a club. Our night had been made. The money went toward a shared cab ride and allowed us to bypass three subway transfers to get to the underbelly of South Brooklyn in the early hours of the morning. Little did I know, I had turned toward a life of crime.

Section 252 of New York’s Personal Property Law specifies that those who find $20 or more of lost money and fail to “either return it to the owner or report such finding or acquisition of possession and deposit such property in a police station” within ten days can face punishments ranging from a $1,000 fine to a year of imprisonment.

But many of us are accidental lawbreakers, thanks to a small raft of obscure and mostly ignored laws.

Justice Albert Rosenblatt, a retired New York judge and president of the Historical Society of the New York Courts, said that a number of outdated, archaic and just plain unenforceable laws from past decades often get caught in the dregs of the state’s legal texts and are no longer prosecuted in modern society.

“There are a lot of instances when the laws just sit there unenforced,” said Rosenblatt. “No one cares or thinks enough about them because they’re dead letters, they don’t really bother anyone.”

The Underground World of Window Puppetry 

John Barrett, a professor specializing in legal history at St. John’s University School of Law, told me that “a lot of things might sit there and look like laws, but not actually continue to have legal effect.”

Take Section 10-114 of the New York City Administrative Code, which prohibits holding puppet shows, dance routines, comedy skits and other performances from “any window or open space of any house, or building.”

In 2007, Mountain Dew tried poking fun at this strange law with a commercial of a man who gets knocked down by a SWAT team for playing with some fuzzy puppets in his window.

In 2016, I tried to paint some faces on my thumbs with a Sharpie and then put on an abbreviated rendition of The Crucible from the window of my third-floor apartment. The SWAT team never showed up, but I now have a few neighbors who will cross the street whenever they see me coming towards them.

That Handcuff Fantasy Could Become A Handcuff REALITY

A New York City Administrative Code law states that “possession of handcuffs, thumb-cuffs or leg irons by unauthorized persons” (Section 10-147) is illegal. While the law’s wording does make allowances for toy handcuffs that cannot actually restrain a person, BDSM enthusiasts beware: kinky intimacy is never explicitly listed as one of the few permissible uses.
Dance Dance Prosecution

New York’s cabaret license law isn’t meant to go after dancers—it gives city officials the right to shut down bars that do not have a special license for “allowing” groups of people to dance in their venue. The law dates back to the times of the Prohibition and sounds like it should, in the words of Rosenblatt, amount to little more than “dead letters.”

Except, of course, that it’s still actively enforced today: In 2014, bar owner and attorney Andrew Muchmore filed a claim that said it was unconstitutional for the City to continue arbitrarily enforcing a law that, according to his legal memorandum, was enacted in 1926 to “clamp down on inter-racial dancing and inter-racial mingling in Harlem jazz clubs.”

The case, which has dragged on for more than a year after the city filed a cross-motion for judgment on the pleadings, is still ongoing.

“Those motions have been opened and undecided for the better part of a year now,” said Muchmore.

Throughout much of the late 1990s, Rudy Giuliani relied on this law to regularly shut down nightclubs he deemed a disruption to “quality of life,” while Michael Bloomberg’s later attempts to replace it with what some perceived to be an even more limiting license were eventually dropped.

Katyusca Abreu, assistant press secretary at the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs, said that the law is actively enforced by the NYPD, but refused to provide details of specific bars that were shut down for dancing violations.

“Any bar or restaurant in New York City where patron dancing is permitted requires a DCA cabaret license,” she said.

But as the war on dancing in this city rages on, those of us who want to dance will dance, whether it be in a place that “must have a Cabaret License to allow customers to dance” or in the middle of the street.

Adultery


While cheating on your spouse may ruin your social circle and get you kicked out of the shared apartment, Western society has largely decided upon not prosecuting infidelity by, say, jail or execution. Unless you happen to live in the state of New York, that is, where “sexual intercourse with another person at a time when he has a living spouse, or the other person has a living spouse” (255.17 NYS Penal Law) is still classified as a Class B misdemeanor and can (theoretically) be punished by up to a year in jail.

Random Red Carpets

Rolling out the red carpet on the streets of New York comes at a price — those who fail to “submit an official permit application to the Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting no less than two weeks prior to the date of the event” can expect to pay up to $24,000 in fines for each unveiling. But while the fees were last raised by Bloomberg in 2008 as a way of limiting noise caused by high-profile celebrity events, the wording technically includes all “red carpet, film, television and theatre events.”

That Extra Roommate of Yours May Have to Go (Unless You Get Married?)

The Housing Maintenance Code states that sharing a living space with more than three people who are not related to you by blood or marriage is technically illegal.

Though it’s probably safe to say that if the law that limits living arrangements to “the tenant, immediate family of the tenant, one additional occupant, and dependent children of the occupant” (New York Real Property Law §235-f) were actively enforced, most of the 7.3% of all New Yorkers who, according to 2010 census data, live with unrelated roommates would already be in jail.

Cock-a-doodle-DON'T

Urban farmers be warned: wolves, panthers, jackals and ferrets are not the only dangerous animals that you are not allowed to keep inside your Manhattan apartment. According to Section 161.19 of the city’s Health Code, “no person shall keep a live rooster, duck, goose or turkey in a built-up portion of the City."

While this spells bad news for anyone who had hopes of raising chicks, people who want to keep a few chickens around for eggs (or company) may still do so — the law is surprisingly lax when it comes to hens which, due to their quieter nature, are still permitted inside New York homes.

Feel Like Predicting The Future? Keep It To Yourself

Ever ask someone to guess whether you’ll pass tomorrow’s exam or meet that special someone on the weekend? As it turns out, predicting fortunes for money is a crime and anyone who “holds himself out as being able, by claimed or pretended use of occult powers, to answer questions or give advice on personal matters” is guilty of a class B misdemeanor (Section 165.35, New York Penal Law).

Bob Nygaard, a private investigator and former police officer, said that the law is meant to protect people from being duped into giving away large sums of money to scammers who claim that they can see the future. That said, the law also applies to anyone who tells fortunes outside an exhibition or show.

“It’s not a crime to be gullible, but it is a crime to defraud a gullible person,” he said.

Over the course of his career, Nygaard worked to get dozens of fortune tellers — including New York fortune teller Priscilla Kelly Delmaro and her mother-in-law Christine Evans — arrested under the same law. Evans, who was arrested for petty larceny, fraud and fortune telling in April and is currently awaiting trail, received compensation from her client in the form of gift cards and a $400 water fountain.

While the no-fortune law makes allowances for the Ouija board and other forms of “entertainment or amusement,” trying to predict the future for a form of compensation—be it a large check or a gift card—is not legal.

“You can’t say I’m doing it for entertainment purposes, so I didn’t break the law,” said Nygaard.


Veronika Bondarenko is a 23-year-old writer and avid Twitter pundit who is currently completing her master’s program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She enjoys getting lost among dusty bookstores and strange historical facts.