The thing about laws is that they always make great sense at the time they’re written.
Nearly 4,000 years ago, the Babylonian king Hammurabi decreed that those accused of sorcery should leap into a river and prove their innocence by not drowning.
The Salem Witch Trials viewed floating in water as proof of guilt only 325 years ago.
In this respect, New Jersey’s laws are no different from Massachusetts’ or Mesopotamia’s: We have a fair number of laws on the books that once made sense, but are now bona fide head-scratchers. Many of these antiquated statutes are on the hit list of the New Jersey Law Review Commission, which is tasked with shaking the dust off what’s on those old books.
Here are a few that may leave you wondering if justice is as dumb as it is blind.
Bring us your tired…not your poor
Under a 1941 statute, bringing “any poor person” into a county from any other county in the state without first having obtained permission from the county welfare board is a misdemeanor in New Jersey.
And the person who was lured into moving? “He shall be returned from whence he came.”
N.J.S. 44:4-79. Bringing poor person into county unlawfully; misdemeanor
Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be untrained tiger riders
Since 1962, New Jersey’s children have been prohibited from appearing in “public performance” as a tightrope walker, contortionist, and/or rider of a horse or other animal — unless the minor is trained “to safely ride such horse or animal.”
“Officer, help! That toddler is riding a tiger!”
“He’s a professional, ma’am. Stand back and let him do his job!”
Forget ISIS. Jersey’s still at war with… Germany?
For most Americans, World War II ended in 1945 with the surrender of Germany in August and Japan later that September.
But not here in New Jersey, where state law still specifies that “the words ‘present war,’ ‘present war emergency,’ ‘the existing state of war,’ ‘present defense emergency,” always legally mean “the present wars with the governments of Japan, Germany and Italy.”
Talk about holding a grudge.
Sleigh bells ring. Are you listening?
More cowbell? Not in New Jersey! Here, we need more sleigh bell.
According to state law, no person shall drive a horse attached to a sleigh or sled on a highway “unless there are a sufficient number of bells attached to the horse’s harness to give warning of its approach.”
What is considered a “sufficient” number of bells? Isn’t that kind of like asking when you’ve got enough cowbell?
Thinking of liberating a fox or a coyote? Don’t even.
“No person shall liberate a fox or coyote within this state, under a penalty of one hundred dollars for each offense.”
We say: Meep-meep!
N.J.S. 23:4-57 and 23:4-63.1. Penalty for liberating foxes, coyotes.
Bikes can’t whistle.
Wanna go for a bike ride? Great. Just make sure it’s equipped with “a bell or other device capable of giving a signal” that audible “for a distance of at least one hundred feet.”
And for heaven’s sake, make sure it’s a bell, and because using “any siren or whistle”? That’s illegal in New Jersey.
N.J.S. 39:4-11. Audible signals for bikes.
…but they can ride the rails, gratis
Ever feel self-conscious about bringing that bike along with you on NJ Transit? Don’t, just as long as you don’t bring any other luggage.
There is one catch though. You’ll need to remove your “lantern” from the bike.
As long as you’re lantern-less, you’re good to go.
Any conductor who gives you a hard time about it can legally be forced by a court of law “pay to such passenger ten dollars for each offense.”
N.J. 48:12-108 Transporting bicycle on railroad or ferry for no extra charge.
We’re sour on selling bittersweet.
Prized for use in fall and winter home decorations, the American Bittersweet’s tiny orange fruits are poisonous to humans when ingested internally. Nonetheless, they are still favorites of birds — and New Jersey lawmakers.
“It shall be unlawful to take for the purpose of sale, sell, or expose for sale, any bittersweet growing in the wild, under a penalty of ten dollars for each offense.”
N.J.S. 23:4-64. Sale of bittersweet prohibited.
Don’t put out a hit on a woodchuck.
Is your town all worked up about woodchucks?
Hiring a Boba-Fett (he’s the instellar assassin-for hire in Star Wars) to go after badgers might be an option elsewhere. But not in New Jersey, where “no county or municipality shall hereafter pay any premium or bounty for the killing of any fox or woodchuck.”
N.J.S. 23:4-62.2. Bounties or premium for killing prohibition
No watching TV while driving (OK, that ban isn’t stupid at all)
Love to drive? Love watching television? Why not do both at the same time!
Oh, wait. At the risk of stating the obvious, that’s a terrible idea. So terrible that having a TV “viewing screen” visible to a driver has been illegal in New Jersey since 1951, when only one in five American households owned a TV.
So this may be one of those laws that’s actually more relevant now, when distracted driving is a real problem, than it was back in the day, when you simply didn’t see people gazing at “I Love Lucy” from the front seat of their DeSotos.
But with the increasingly common use of dashboard GPS devices, smartphones and vehicle DVD systems, there’s probably some revising to do to clarify what screens are forbidden.
The no driving while texting law, of course, is safe.
N.J.S. 39:3A-1. Television set with screen visible to driver of vehicle prohibited