A federal crime is supposed to be a very big deal. When I think of federal crimes, I think of the biggies: guns, drugs, and a little terrorism on the side. But as it turns out, the U.S. Code has a good number of slightly bizarre and unexpected crimes. Here of some of my favorites, in order of their appearance in the Code. Why are there 18? Because, that’s why.
1. Sale or use of a traffic signal preemption transmitter (18 U.S.C. § 39): It would be great to be able to have a magic device to get you all green lights on the way to work. Unfortunately, it would not be great to go to federal prison for that magic device.
2. Transportation of water hyacinths (18 U.S.C. § 39): Water hyacinths can produce pretty flowers, but they can also grow shockingly fast and clog up waterways. Apparently, they’re so much of a problem that they can earn a six month prison sentence. If only Congress had passed a statute like this for kudzu.
3. Use of aircraft or motor vehicles to hunt certain wild horses or burros (18 U.S.C. § 47(a)): Who knew wild burros were a federally-protected class?
4. Variola virus (18 U.S.C. § 175c): Federal law requires you to keep your smallpox to yourself. Of course, this makes me wonder why there is not a similar statute for the even more frightening monkeypox. (Monkeypox scares me more because of its primate-related name.)
5. Convict labor contracts (18 U.S.C. § 436): If you’ve seen The Shawshank Redemption, you know that nothing good comes from prisoner labor schemes.
6. Troops at polls (18 U.S.C. § 592): I suppose this is a great idea given that nobody likes a military junta, but I wasn’t aware there was actually a law on the books keeping soldiers away from our polling places.
7. Theft of livestock (18 U.S.C. § 667): As far as I know, you can steal $10,000 from a jewelry store and not face a federal prison sentence. If, however, you steal $10,000 of cattle (or, as I like to call them, soon-to-be-steaks), you could get locked up for five years in a federal slammer. I guess our nation really loves our livestock.
8. Improper use of the “Woodsy the Owl” character, Swiss Confederation coat of arms, or “Golden Eagle” insignia (18 U.S.C. §§ 711a, 708, 715): I don’t even know who Woodsy the Owl is, or what the Golden Eagle is. But apparently, if you misuse them, you’re going to jail. Same thing for the Swiss symbol. These kinds of laws raise a lot of questions in my mind. What are the implications of this law for Victorinox, makers of the Swiss army knife? Can Swiss Miss get in trouble if she wrongfully displays her country’s flag? Dear god, not Swiss Miss!!
9. Impersonation of 4-H Club members or agents (18 U.S.C. § 916): You can be fined $5,000 and get six months in jail for impersonating a 4-H member. This only confirms my theory that all of the nation’s gold and alien bodies are actually stored at 4-H headquarters here in DC.
10. Misrepresentation of Indian produced goods and products (18 U.S.C. § 1159): Not only is it obnoxious to wrongfully call your junk “Native American made,” it’s also illegal.
11. Prostitution near military and naval establishments (18 U.S.C. § 1384): Prostitution is illegal everywhere in the U.S. But it’s extra illegal if you’re trying to get lucky with some military men.
12. Corruption of seamen and confederating with pirates (18 U.S.C. § 1657): I’m not really sure I understand what this statute means, but it still makes me laugh. I like to imagine somebody getting arrested for taking a seaman to his first strip club, or giving a seaman his first drink of alcohol — but I assume they’re referring to a different type of corruption.
13. Theft of newspapers (18 U.S.C. § 1710): This statute only applies to postal carriers. That’s unfortunate, because somebody in my building kept stealing my Economist and Washington Post. It would have been sweet justice to make an anonymous tip and get a federal indictment lodged against them.
14. Improper wearing of a postal uniform (18 U.S.C. § 1730): I don’t know why anyone would want to wear a postal uniform, but apparently you can’t live your dream if that’s the case for you. This law makes me think that everyone on Project Runway committed a federal crime a few years ago.
15. Transportation or importation of prison-made goods (18 U.S.C. § 1761): Nothing says love like a prison-made plastic toothbrush shiv. But you can’t mail one to mom this Mother’s Day — that’s illegal.
16. Transportation of dentures (18 U.S.C. § 1821): Gross. Just gross. I think they should expand this law to include any tooth and mouth related products.
17. False weather reports (18 U.S.C. § 2074): The statute requires one to knowingly produce a false weather report in order to break the law. Otherwise, there would be hundreds of arrests of local weathermen each year.
18. Shanghaiing sailors (18 U.S.C. § 2194): I guess this statute was passed to address a real problem in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1900s. It seems funny to me that we still have this law on the books, given that the problem of “shanghaiing” largely ended with the advent of the steam engine.