Ridiculous De Minimis Crimes

One of the few Latin phases we learned in law school that is still used in court’s today is: de minimis non curat lex. It means, “the law does not deal with trivialities.” In other words, the courts should not waste their time dealing with stupid stuff.

Federal, state, and local jurisdictions have enacted thousands upon thousands of crimes. Yet, “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” Some of these crimes, especially in the local municipal codes, are ridiculous.

  • For example, it is a misdemeanor crime, carrying a possible six months in jail and a $1000 fine, to throw a Frisbee at a local beach in a non-designated area.
  • It is a misdemeanor at a local beach to dig a hole in the sand deeper than eighteen inches
  • It is a misdemeanor crime in one of our local cities to skateboard on a public sidewalk.

As a new deputy district attorney (DA) is was assigned to Juvenile Court.  The police sent me a case to review wherein a ten-year-old child was cited for riding a friend on the handle bars of his bicycle – a misdemeanor. The city had a “no tolerance policy” regarding this crime, and so they brought the case for me to file criminal charges against the boy.

I wanted to reject filing the case, but I wasn’t quite sure how. So, I gave the case to one of our senior DAs. He got angry and wrote on the rejection form: “Doesn’t your city council have anything better to do than pass such stupid laws, and doesn’t your police department have anything better to do than enforce them!”  Ouch. 

That hit the fan really fast. The city police chief personally telephoned the Orange County District Attorney to complain. My colleague got in a heap of trouble.

Learning vicariously, from the experience of others, is a sign of maturity. And so, I

learned never to reject filing a case the way he did. Instead, I wrote, “Highly disproportionate cost of prosecution.” I never got any blowback.              

How do these trivial crimes get enacted?  Here’s some examples.

An inattentive person is not looking where they are walking, and they trip in a 20” hole in the sand at the beach, and twist their ankle. They immediately say to themselves, “There ought to be a law.” They convince their sympathetic friends and family members that, “There ought to be a law.” Then, they march to the city council and demand a new law.  Magically, a new criminal law suddenly appears.

When the similar inattentive person who is not looking where they are walking, walks into the path of a Frisbee, and it is already against the law, they say to themselves, “We shouldn’t put up with that.” So, they go to the city council and demand the adoption of a “no tolerance policy.” I cringe whenever I hear those words associated with de minimis crimes.

In one case, two 14-year old boys spent the entire weekend in jail for skateboarding on the sidewalk. 

I had a case of a valedictorian who wanted to celebrate his high school graduation by jumping off a low bridge into a local harbor. He was arrest and spent the entire weekend in jail. Because of their “no tolerance policy,” the police demanded that criminal charges be filed against him. He had no prior convictions. He was an A+ student. This arrest put his prestigious scholarship to UC Berkeley in jeopardy, all because of a “no tolerance policy” on a de minimis crime.  

In another case, a girl got arrested and expelled from her high school for giving her best friend Tylenol to ease her menstrual cramps. After all, she was “furnishing drugs.”  

These overregulated de minimis crimes are enough to turn anyone into an anti-government libertarian.  

(For other articles go to: http://www.londonedition.net)

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