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Gavel and fine

Sure, most of the time there are compelling reasons why there’s a law on the books, but sometimes, the reason for the law seems like it punishes good people who aren’t out to take advantage. put together a list of some things that are off limits – that maybe shouldn’t be.

Read on to see if you agree that these actions should be legal or not.

Drive-thru liquor store

Chances are any parent with a screaming kid or two strapped into a car seat would pay a hefty markup for the convenience of not having to drag two kids into a grocery store in order to savor that glass of Pinot after the kids are finally asleep. Is the temptation to open a bottle of alcohol while driving any less if you bought it from the supermarket?

Drive-thru liquor stores are illegal in most states due to laws that prohibit the selling or serving of alcohol by means of drive-in or curb service. You can still stay in your car to buy alcohol in Arizona, Texas, Ohio, Kentucky and Wisconsin. In Louisiana, they may have gone a little too far. There, you can buy ready-to-drink frozen alcoholic drinks (as high as 190-proof) from your car. This doesn’t break the state’s open container law unless someone in the car removes the lid or puts a straw through the hole.  Many establishments tape up the hole.


Yes, they spark and can start fires – but so can cigarettes and matches. Sparklers can also burn idiots who put them in their pants and then record themselves igniting their crotch. So, outlawing sparklers is really just denying the public the ability to make fiery circles with slow shutter speeds and experience schadenfreude at dumb people on YouTube.

Most states allow consumer fireworks of some type. The exceptions are Delaware, Massachusetts and New Jersey. Only recently, in 2014, New York came off this list when it passed a law that allows sparklers, party poppers and cone fountains to be sold, possessed and lit up – but only if your local county government has opted in. New York State Troopers note that it’s a crime to provide a sparkler to a person under the age of 18.

In Illinois, Iowa, Ohio and Vermont, you are only allowed to use wire or word sparklers and other novelty items. Ohio’s law allows consumer fireworks to be sold to Ohio residents, but only after signing an agreement that says the items will be taken out-of-state within 48 hours. In Nevada, a similar law required residents to take purchased fireworks out of the county within 24 hours.

Even in states that allow more than a few novelty items can have strict rules on what can and cannot be purchased and during what time of year fireworks can be sold. For example, California specifically prohibits a long list of items, including firecrackers, skyrockets and roman candles, and only allows sales from noon, June 28 through noon, July 6.

The American Pyrotechnics Association gives a state-by-state breakdown of firework laws.


While a large portion of the country is snacking on pot brownies, the debate about marijuana laws continues. However, the dispute regarding health concerns seems to be giving way to discussions focused on regulation. Currently, 23 states and the District of Columbia allow use of medical marijuana, 20 states have passed laws decriminalizing small amounts of possession, and four states (Washington, Oregon, Colorado and Alaska) plus District of Columbia have passed laws allowing recreational use of the drug.

California led the way in 1996 when voters passed Proposition 215, allowing for the medical use of marijuana. In 2016, there are decriminalization bills going through the legislative practice in 10 other states (Arizona, Hawaii, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Wyoming).

While states are making their own laws, at the federal level, marijuana continues to be classified as a dangerous Schedule I substance. This makes distribution and sale of marijuana a federal offense. Under federal law, possessing marijuana can get you up to one year in jail and a minimum fine of $1,000 for a first offense. Distribution of a small amount, for no compensation, is treated as possession.

In 2009, an Obama Administration memo was sent to federal prosecutors urging them not to prosecute people who distribute marijuana for medical purposes in accordance with state law. Will smoking pot come off our list before sparklers?

Alcohol prohibited

Anyone who saw “Footloose” knows how this is going to go. While moral or religious beliefs may have started the demand for a county or town to be “dry,” wanting to keep alcohol-related crime low appears to be the recent motivation for keeping the hooch out of easy reach. However, one news station revealed that the number of Driving While Intoxicated charges was higher in dry counties than in comparable wet counties.

Laws regarding alcohol sales are all over the place in the U.S. Thirty-three states have laws that allow local governments to prohibit alcohol sales — and sometimes consumption and possession, as well. Three states, Kansas, Mississippi and Tennessee are completely dry; counties within each state must permit the sale of alcohol for it to be legal. Alcohol researcher David, J. Hanson, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the State University of New York at Potsdam, estimates that dry counties and municipalities make up 10 percent of the U.S.

And even if you live in a wet area, that doesn’t mean you can drink at any time – or get drinks for cheap. For instance, in Indiana, you can’t buy on Christmas Day, and on Sundays, you can only buy from restaurants, wineries, or breweries. In Massachusetts, happy hours are banned via a law that prohibits discounts at specific times. 

Deserted intersection

Most people have experienced the uncertainly of a deserted intersection at 3 a.m. and for whatever reason, your vehicle didn’t trip the sensor. So, you sit with no other cars in sight, wondering whether you would see some flashing lights in the rear-view mirror if you proceeded – with caution – through the light.

Some states have allowed this for motorcycles since they may have a harder time tripping the sensor, but responsible drivers of automobiles could be trusted with that, as well. If most people can figure out four-way stops, this should be a piece of cake, right?

Legislation for motorcycles (some include mopeds and bicycles) to run stale red lights, nicknamed “dead red” or “safe-on-red” laws, can vary a bit in each of the 16 states that allow it. In states that have time limits, you must wait anywhere from 45 seconds to 3 minutes. Other states require you to have waited an “unreasonable” amount of time, wait until it’s safe, or wait for one or two cycles of light. All of these seem reasonable for a single car at a deserted red light.

Kids playing on playground

An accusatory spotlight has been recently shone on parents who have – gasp – allowed their kids play at a playground unattended. Yes, the world can be a scary place sometimes – or all the time when you’re constantly connected to a 24-hour news stream of negative reports. But denying a generation of children the opportunity to solve their own playground squabbles isn’t the answer, as it also means sending adults out into the world who won’t have the ability to change it for the better.

However, some “free-range” parents, as they’re called, who allow children to play alone or walk home alone from school have ended up in trouble with the law. Kids are ending up in Children’s Protective Services and parents investigated for neglect.

Penalties for neglect range from fines to jail time, probation and even loss of legal custody of a child. For instance, in South Carolina a woman whose 9-year-old child played at nearby park served 17 days in jail and faced 10 years in jail if convicted of felony child neglect.

While no one wants real child neglect to be overlooked, children should be able to play independently in safe environments without helicopter parents attending to their every need.

Bald eagle

Hunting protected species for trophies? Bad. Finding a bird feather on a hike and keeping it as a souvenir? Turns out, also bad. If it’s from a federally protected species, like a bald eagle, and you’re not a member of a Native American tribe, owning a naturally found eagle feather can catch you a fine of $5,000 or one year in jail for a first offense. Clearly, there is a need to protect endangered species and indigenous interests, but it would be nice if collecting fallen feathers didn’t put you in the same category as that jerk dentist with the lion trophy.

The law goes back to 1940 and is supposed to protect the bald eagle by prohibiting possession, transportation, or sales. In 1972, the penalties increased to make a firmer stance. Even more severe are the penalties for felony convictions, which comes with a maximum fine of $250,000 or two years in jail. The fines are doubled for an organization that is caught breaking the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

Did it work? Probably – when paired with a strong emphasis on breeding programs and habitat conservation. The population of bald eagles began to show sharper improvement in the mid-to-late ’80s.

You can even look for a reward if you provide information leading to the arrest and conviction for violation of the Act. Just don’t expect your friends to invite you on any more walks.

Feeding expired meter

Every once in a while, when you’ve had a rough day, and the universe seems to be conspiring against you, a little ray of hope shines through. Maybe someone in the coffee drive-thru lane buys your drink, or perhaps you get the last turkey wrap at your favorite lunch spot, or possibly someone was kind enough to feed your meter to prevent you from receiving a ticket. In that moment, it’s enough to restore your faith in humanity – that is, until you realize that person who fed your meter just received a ticket from a nearby meter reader. Humanity fail.

A man in Oregon was cited for obstructing governmental administration when he walked down a street feeding quarters to meters in the view of a parking enforcement officer. The charge comes with a fine of over $500.

In some areas, the issue is it’s unlawful to deposit more money into a meter to extend the time, either by the car owner or others. San Francisco and Los Angeles both have “time limit zones” where you cannot park beyond that limit or you’re subject to a fine.

There is some hope, though. The Supreme Court in New Hampshire ruled in 2015 that a band of “Robin Hoods” who were feeding meters for others were protected under the First Amendment, as this group’s intention was to draw attention to what they believed were unacceptable parking policies.

Return to sender

Sure, chalk this one up to laziness, but shouldn’t it be OK to throw out the bulk mail addressed to the previous tenant? Is it absolutely imperative that the catalog of overpriced wine and cheese baskets and reach its final destination?

As annoying as it is to receive a handful of mail addressed to the person who lived there before you, interfering with the delivery of mail from the United States Post Office is a federal offense – punishable by a fine or even jail time. The U.S. Code (18 U.S. Code 1701, 1702 & 1703) prohibits the obstruction, delay or destruction of mail. Possible jail time for an offense can vary from six months to five years, and the fine imposed can be up to $5,000.

It’s not worth trying to fight the system on this one. Simply write “return to sender – resident no longer at this address” on any piece of mail that’s address to someone else. First off, you won’t be breaking the law. Second, the Post Office will likely be able to update the information and eliminate the problem altogether.

Taxes on prizes

If you won a $500,000 contest, what would you do with the winnings? First answer for most people is the same: Pay half in taxes. To quote “Fast Eddie” Felson, “Money won is twice as sweet as money earned,” but it appears the IRS doesn’t agree. Since you didn’t earn it, you don’t pay employment taxes, such as Social Security and Medicare, but you do have to pay federal income tax, plus any state and local taxes.

Prizes won in contests are assigned a dollar value that represents the fair-market value, and the issuer of the prize reports that information to the IRS. That means you pay taxes on any prize, such as a vacation, a vehicle, or a set of matching luggage. Typically, you’d receive a 1099 form from the organization awarding the prize stating its dollar value.

You need to include your prize winnings as “other” taxable income on your federal income taxes.  And don’t forget, you also have to report it on your state income tax, as well. If you fail to pay the taxes owed, you’ll receive a penalty from the IRS – in addition to whatever money you owe. Winning a prize that lightens your pockets. Seems like there ought to be a law against that.

Happy birthday song

One thing that used to be illegal but isn’t anymore:  singing Happy Birthday in public. It used to be that anyone who belted out the song in public would owe royalties to the entity that owned the rights to the song. That is why when celebrating a birthday at a restaurant, another song was used in its place. However, in 2015, a federal judge ruled that the copyright originally filed in 1935 was only for the melody and specific arrangement of the tune, not the song itself. This now places the song’s lyrics in the public domain and no longer protected by copyright — which brought its owner $2 million a year.

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Penny Gusner


Penny is an expert on insurance procedures, rates, policies and claims. She has extensive knowledge of all major insurance lines -- auto, homeowners, life and health insurance. She has been answering consumers’ questions as an analyst for more than 15 years and has been featured in numerous major media outlets, including the Washington Post and Kiplinger’s.