Woe unto him who makes an unsanctioned visit to his quarantined llama. He could soon find himself up to his neck in federal charges.
In America’s early days, the law was fairly simple. The Constitution specifies just three federal crimes: piracy, counterfeiting, and treason.
Since then, however, the number of no-no’s has expanded by the millions, encompassing everything from how many beers you can drink while riding a bike in a national park (zero) to what shape margarine pats must be served in restaurants if they aren’t clearly labeled as margarine. (For God’s sake, triangles! A Hartford, Connecticut, restaurant owner was arrested in 1952 for serving square pats of margarine.)
The list has grown so long that you can now find yourself in violation of federal law for a host of things that you probably didn’t even know were crimes. Like that unsanctioned llama contact, which falls under 9 C.F.R. § 93.413 of the Animal Protection Act.
An amusing guide to some of the more bizarre statutes can be found in the new book “How to Become a Federal Criminal: An Illustrated Handbook for the Aspiring Offender” (Atria Books) by criminal defense lawyer Mike Chase, who also runs the @CrimeADay Twitter account.
Here are 10 ways you can live on the edge and run afoul of federal law:
1. Use a Falconry Bird in a Movie That Isn’t About Falconry
That’s right. There are specific federal laws about what can and can’t happen in movies. (Where was the government when“Men in Black International”was being made?)
Even outside of movies, the law regulates how many birds someone is allowed to keep, as well as how long a falcon is allowed to stay with a non-falconer friend: 45 days, as it turns out.
And the Fed forbids falconers from letting their falcons appear in films that aren’t about falconry.
For a falcon to legally appear in a movie, that film must specifically concern the hobby or “the biology, ecological roles, and conservation needs of raptors and other migratory birds.”
“Even then, falconers can’t be paid for the performance,” Chase writes.
The prohibition has led to filmmakers using lookalike and CG birds.
2. Sell Runny Ketchup
Because watery ketchup isn’t really ketchup at all, the government regulates how thick the sauce must be.
The flow rate is measured by an instrument called a Bostwick consistometer. Basically, the ketchup is allowed to flow down a trough and an observer measures how far it can travel in 30 seconds. Any farther than 14 centimeters and it ain’t ketchup.
Ketchup that’s too runny must be slapped with a conspicuous “substandard” in 12- or 14-point type, according to the Feds.
And the government even regulates how to spell ketchup. Turns out there are just three permissible spellings: Ketchup (definitely!), Catsup (Ok, sure) and Catchup (sorry, wut?).
3. Leave the Country with Too Many Nickels in Your Pockets
Better check your pockets next time you head to the airport.
“Since 2006, a federal regulation has prohibited exporting pennies or nickels from the United States without a special license from the U.S. Mint,” Chase writes. “Under 31 U.S.C. § 5111(d)(2), doing so knowingly is a federal crime and is punishable by up to five years in prison.”
The question is, of course, how much change is too much. The law allows travelers (with seemingly very large pockets) to go abroad with up to $5 in pennies or nickels, or as much as $25 as long as the coins are for “legitimate personal numismatic, amusement, or recreational use.”
4. Sell Wine With a Label that Insults the Competition
If you’ve noticed a curious lack of smack talk on your merlot, there’s a reason. It’s a federal misdemeanor.
Statute 27 C.F.R. § 4.39(a)(2) forbids vino labels that are “disparaging of a competitor’s products.”
Wine makers are also forbidden from slapping their bottles with obscene material, and for making certain claims, such as that it will get you drunk or that it has curative properties.
5. Write a Check for Less Than $1
Could you really get sent to Sing-Sing for writing a personal check for 99 cents? (And for anyone under 30 years old, a “check” is a piece of paper that your grandparents used to pay for Ovaltine.)
Statute 18 U.S.C. § 336 makes it a federal crime to issue “any note, check, memorandum, token, or other obligation for a less sum than $1” in lieu of money.
The Feds probably won’t bust down your door for breaking this rule, according to Chase. The statute was written in 1862 at a time when the value of the metal in coins exceeded their face value, leading some Americans to hoard change.
To facilitate transactions, some retailers started issuing their own notes or tokens for use as change.
“But the government didn’t take kindly to the idea of competing currencies, so Congress passed the Stamp Payments Act, making the issuance of private small denomination currency a federal crime,” the author writes.
In 1874, a Michigan furnace store employee was indicted for circulating a note from the store that promised the retailer would pay 50 cents to the bearer. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where the justices ruled the law wasn’t about store credit and was only meant to prevent the circulation of private currencies.
6. Make an Unreasonable Gesture to a Passing Horse
True, this only concerns horses in a national park (you’re free to flip the bird to horses on private land), but still. What the heck?
Chase writes that the law doesn’t specify what constitutes “unreasonable,” and when the Park Service was considering amending the law in 1983, a member of the public complained — rightfully — that the rule was a bit vague.
Now, the law has been amended to prohibit unreasonable gestures “considering the nature and purpose of the actor’s conduct, and other factors that would govern the conduct of a reasonably prudent person.”
Whatever that means. Just be polite to horses, folks.
7. Sell Oversized or Undersized Noodles
Title 21, Part 139, of the Code of Federal Regulations sets rigid standards for the specifications of noodles — though on just four varieties.
It requires macaroni to be tube-shaped and have a diameter between 0.11 and 0.27 inches.
Spaghetti must be tube- or cord-shaped and have a diameter between 0.06 and 0.11 inches, while vermicelli must be cord-shaped with a diameter less than 0.06 inches.
As for egg noodles, they simply must be ribbon-shaped.
Curiously, The Man has nothing to say about every other variety of pasta.
“How many twists must a rotini have?” Chase writes. “Whose ears must orecchiette look like? Alphabet pasta can presumably be in any font, and there are no federal limits on the maximum diameter of a manicotti.”
8. Try to Make it Rain With Lasers Without Telling the Government First
Bad news for James Bond villains. Monkeying with the weather is strictly prohibited.
The rule has its origins during the Vietnam War, when the United States spent millions trying to figure out how to create downpours over strategic enemy sites.
When that information leaked in the press, Congress enacted 15 U.S.C. § 330a, which says that “no person may engage, or attempt to engage, in any weather modification activity in the United States” without notifying the secretary of commerce. Violators could be slapped with a fine of up to $10,000.
9. Sell Swiss Cheese Without Holes
In the same way that ketchup isn’t ketchup unless you break your hand trying to get it out of the bottle, Swiss cheese isn’t Swiss without its holes.
The holes are known as “eyes,” and a cheese without them is called “blind.”
Federal law mandates that Swiss must have eyes that have “developed throughout the cheese,” apparently saving consumers from a cheese with uneven holes that could vary from bite to bite.
10. Have Disruptively Bad Hygiene in the Library of Congress
Better hit the showers before you hit the stacks.
Under 40 U.S.C. § 5104(e)(2)(C), an offender can be punished by up to six months in prison for disturbing readers with “offensive personal hygiene.”
As Chase points out, the law provides no guidance on what constitutes “offensive.” To borrow a famous Supreme Court litmus test: You’ll know it when you smell it.