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Silly laws and serious consequences

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Did you know that in Michigan it is against the law to try to get people to dance to the Star-Spangled Banner?

Nor is that all. They can arrest you for arguing in favor of polygamy, or promoting a walkathon, or for making fun of somebody for not accepting a challenge to a duel.

Well, the odds are that the polygamy police won’t bother you no matter what you say about it. But we have a vast number of other bad laws on the books that sometimes are enforced – even against people who have no idea that they are breaking the law.

Take poor Lisa Snyder, who six years ago, was caught in the act of helping neighbor children board the school bus every day. For doing this, the state Department of Human Services claimed she was operating an illegal day care center.

Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley was then her state representative. Fortunately, he got the legislature to fix this. But not everybody is so lucky. Twelve years ago, Ken Schumaker brought some scrap tires to a facility he thought was a legal depository.

It wasn’t. And the prosecutors went after him – even though Schumaker had no idea that he was doing something illegal. He ended up with a nine month sentence and a ten thousand dollar fine.

All this and more is in a Manhattan Institute study that came out in October, and which was brought to my attention by Phil Power, the founder and chair of the non-partisan Center for Michigan.

You can easily find the short, very readable study, “Overcriminalizing the Wolverine State” online. Power, in fact, wrote his weekly column for his online magazine Bridge about what it means.

The authors noted that Michigan’s penal code is eight times the length of that of neighboring states. We have more than thirty-one hundred crimes on the books, and our lawmakers are adding, on average, forty-five new ones every year. What really concerned the authors of the study is that a vast number of these crimes don’t require the state to show that the accused person intended to break the law.

That was how poor Lisa the school bus helper and Ken the scrap tire man got in trouble.

The Manhattan Institute noted that many Michiganders are unknowingly committing crimes every day. Maybe I shouldn’t mention this, but if an unmarried man seduces an unmarried woman, that too is against Michigan law.

The study calls on the legislature to either set up a bipartisan task force or a special commission to review Michigan’s criminal statutes and suggest cleaning up the books.

Laws and penalties should be made consistent, silly or outdated laws should be done away with, and people should not face prosecution for minor crimes they had no intention of committing.

Not only does that make sense, Power notes that this is a perfect time. A lot of budget and other decisions can’t be made until voters decide in May whether to increase the sales tax. The lawmakers may now have some time on their hands.

Otherwise, we’ll go on living in a state where you could become a convicted criminal for entering a horse in a race under a false name.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at michiganradio.org. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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