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You Are Violating The Law

by | Apr 27, 2023

In Mississippi, it is illegal to swear in the presence of two or more people. Mississippi code states that the punishment for swearing in public is a fine or imprisonment (Miss. Code § 97-29-47). My uninformed but highly accurate guess is that 97% of people in Mississippi should be fined or jailed if this law were enforced. This law arguably has just as much legal basis as any other part of the code, and is listed directly before another law that protects victims of violence. If these two laws have equal basis for enforcement within Mississippi code, then why is one never enforced, and the other is likely used to stop illegal behavior on a regular basis?

In New York, it is illegal for more than three unrelated persons to live together. This odd part of New York City’s Housing Maintenance Code is almost never enforced, and is constantly violated. The New York Times estimates that more than 15,000 homes in New York City are in active violation of this code. There are countless other examples of laws like these, including laws restricting certain races of people from being out after sunset, deed restrictions that prohibit properties from being sold to people of color, and other disturbing prohibitions. Many of these more offensive laws have been counteracted by more recent statutes or eliminated entirely, but just as many strange statutes are still active and potentially enforceable.

Vox recently wrote an article titled Hundreds of Wacky, Obsolete Laws Still Exist. Why Don’t More States RemoveThem?  This article describes an obscure Oregon law that allows a material witness in a criminal case “to be kept in jail indefinitely.” In 2015, this resulted in a witness to a murder trial being detained for almost three years even though he was not in any way implicated in a crime.

If you look closely at your state’s laws, there’s a basis to fine and/or arrest almost anyone you want to. For example, if you get cited for jaywalking in a big city, my guess is that the cop likely wanted to issue a citation to you already for some other reason, since jaywalking in most cities is a daily practice. That said, should there be no laws against jaywalking? It likely should not be legal to just run across the street at any time randomly, though I venture to guess that every single person in the United States has jaywalked at least once.

My point is that laws are constantly evolving based on context, and just because they are written down does not mean that they are of equal relevance.

It’s easy and comforting to think of written laws as objective rules that can be followed if you have enough knowledge. However, the context surrounding any given law usually matters far more than the law itself. This means that an understanding of how a court will likely interpret the law might be more important than the law as written.

Knowing that you shouldn’t swear in Mississippi is not particularly relevant, since the chances you’d be jailed for swearing are likely very low. However, if you are a real estate agent in the United States, it is essential to know that you should not find your client neighborhoods that are explicitly nice, good, or safe. This seems odd on the surface, doesn’t it?

The National Association of REALTORS® says that “When a client uses vague terms such as ‘nice,’ ‘good,’ or ‘safe,’ ask impartial questions to clarify their criteria, such as [asking about] property features and price point.” The reason the NAR makes this suggestion is that, if your client tells you to find them a house in a “nice” and “safe” neighborhood, and you only show them homes in neighborhoods of a certain ethnicity, then you could easily be accused of illegal steering. Steering is the practice of making assumptions about a buyer, and only showing them properties in neighborhoods that match their ethnicity. This is a practice that has helped segregate the country over many decades, and is illegal under the Fair Housing Act. A more extreme version of steering (and one which is unfortunately common) occurs when a client says “I only want to live in neighborhoods without a certain race.” For the agent to obey this request is always illegal. This is why a real estate agent should ask for more objective criteria from their client, like price range, specific features the client wants, etc. instead of highly subjective criteria like “good neighborhoods.”

If your only understanding of the law is based on memorizing specific statutes, you’re going to run into trouble. The Fair Housing Act does not explicitly prohibit recommending safe neighborhoods, but doing so in a way that is discriminatory is illegal under this act. When it comes to law, what you do often matters less than how you do it. Laws are part of a living, breathing context, which is why a literal understanding of the law is only part of the larger picture. Knowing that, technically, you should never swear in Mississippi is not particularly helpful, since this old law has far outlived the environment that created it. When it comes to law, details matter immensely, but details are meaningless without context.




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