The Naughty List: 10 Things That Aren't Illegal But Should Be

There's no shortage of bad choices that can lead to an arrest, but we went in search of bad choices that are surprisingly legal.  

Laws vary by state, but here's a “naughty list” of actions that typically won't result in an expensive ticket, a court date or immediate jailing.  

Keep in mind that even if your state doesn't necessarily have a law making these things illegal, there may be some that fall under a local ordinance.

1. Flashing lights to warn of a speed trap

A federal judge ruled in February 2014 that it's motorists' First Amendment right to flash their headlights to warn other drivers of nearby law enforcement officers or speed traps.

Prior to this ruling, police could stop drivers who flicked on and off their headlights or high beams to caution other drivers of cops lying in wait.  Law enforcement said flashing headlights to warn other motorists was interfering with a police investigation and that they could write tickets.

2. Driving barefoot

While driving a car without footwear may be unwise, it's not illegal in any state.  Alabama, however, does require anyone operating or riding on a motorcycle to wear shoes.

Even though it's not illegal, driving barefoot could compromise your control of your vehicle.  The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles issued a press release in 2012 stating that driving in bare feet, socks or stockings is dangerous because your feet can slip off the gas or brake pedals.

While your lack of footwear on its own won't get you a ticket, if police find it somehow contributed to an accident you could end up with a citation for negligent or reckless driving.

3. Swearing at a cop

Many of us mutter curses to ourselves when pulled over by a cop, but what if you let loose a profanity-laden rant at the officer?  Luckily our First Amendment should keep you from being hauled off to jail - even if your state has a law against profanity.

Some states do have laws banning swearing.  A law in Virginia for over 50 years makes it a Class 4 misdemeanor to profanely curse or swear in public.  And North Carolina has a law going back to 1913 that makes it a Class 3 misdemeanor if “any person in the hearing of two or more persons, in a loud and boisterous manner, use indecent or profane language.”

But even if your state has arcane laws on the books regarding profanity, your First Amendment rights protect your free speech -- even when the vulgar language is being hurled at an officer.  In 2011, a North Carolina judge found the state's profanity statute an unconstitutional violation of freedom of speech and legislators have since been trying to repeal it.

One caveat: You could be cited for disorderly conduct if you incite violence with your swearing.

4. Walking around while high

You can't legally drive high, but harmlessly walking around while high isn't illegal. 

Being high and causing a ruckus, though, might get you thrown in jail.

Public intoxication laws vary greatly among states, but in general they encompass both alcohol intoxication and being under the influence of substances, such as THC.  However, most state intoxication laws don't kick in unless you “breach the peace” by harassing others or endangering yourself or others in a public place. 

And if you're creating a scene while high, you could be breaking other laws that could get the cops' attention, such as disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct.

5. Ignoring stop signs on private property

Depending on which state you live in, it may be perfectly legal to run a stop sign on private property. 

In many states, "traffic control devices," such as stop signs, are only enforceable when an automobile is “operated on a street or highway.”  Other states, however, extend such laws to private property that is generally open to the public, such shopping malls and store parking lots.

Some other states, meanwhile, allow property owners to request police enforcement of traffic laws on a private road or parking lot.  If that is the case, then you may be able to roll through a stop sign in one parking lot but not the one across the street that has an agreement with the local police - which you won't know about until you're ticketed. 

All states have certain traffic offenses for which police can cite drivers on public or private property.  The list varies but typically includes:
  • Parking in a handicap spot.
  • Parking in a fire lane.
  • Drunk driving.
  • Reckless driving.
  • Careless or negligent driving.
  • Traffic signs that exit you onto a public road.

And, if you're in an accident in a parking lot because you ignored a stop sign and police show up to fill out an accident report, the officer will likely note that there was a traffic sign so the insurance companies involved can take that into account when deciding fault.

6.  Spitting on cars that are badly parked

Spitting - assuming you don't cause actual damage -- won't get you jail time, but it can get you a slap-on-the-wrist in some states.  An old law in Massachusetts calls spitting in public a crime against public health. You are only allowed to spit in “receptacles provided for the purpose” in public or you can be punished by a fine of not more than $20.

Some states and cities have done away with spitting laws. For example, in 1997 Chicago repealed a law banning spitting in public that carried a penalty of between $1 and $5.  Lawmakers decided that spitting was an unhealthy act but not a breach of the law.

7.  Using a radar detector

While you may not think it's naughty to drive with a radar detector, police officers sure do.  Even so, it's legal to use a radar detector in all states except Virginia and also the District of Columbia.

But don't try to outsmart the cops with a radar detector if you're in a commercial vehicle.  A federal law prohibits commercial vehicles from using radar detectors.

Another exception is military bases.  Although a state may allow radar detectors on its roadways, military installations prohibit their use, so upon entering one you'll quickly find out from the gate guard that it must be put away.

8.  Flipping off a cop

Just like cussing, it's not a good idea to make rude gestures at a law enforcement officer - and it's a horrible strategy for getting out of a ticket.  But it's not going to get you tossed in the slammer.  It's protected under your First Amendment rights.

The ACLU, which in 2011 provided criminal defense services for a driver in Denver who flipped off a police offer, told the Denver Post, “The protection of the Constitution is not limited to speech that is acceptable in polite society. The First Amendment also protects expression that may be disrespectful, coarse or even vulgar. It's rude to flip off a cop, but it's not a crime."

The harassment charge against the driver was dropped, and the Colorado State Patrol described the incident as “protected free speech.”

9.  Driving with an open container of alcohol - as long as you're in Mississippi

Mississippi is the only state that doesn't have a law regulating the possession or consumption of alcohol in motor vehicles, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

Mississippi does have drunk driving laws, though, so you can't get hammered and drive.  A DUI here will get you a fine, jail time and license suspension, and your car insurance rates will be higher for at least three of the five years the offense stays on your record.

See's rankings of car insurance rates by state.

Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Missouri, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Virginia forbid drivers from consuming alcohol while operating a motor vehicle, but the laws don't extend to passengers in the vehicle, the NCSL points out. All other states have laws in place for both drivers and passengers.

States that do have open container laws take it seriously.  For example, Arizona has a maximum penalty of a $750 fine and four months in jail.

10.  Wearing a colander on your head for your driver's license photo

You won't be arrested, but you won't necessarily be allowed to get your driver's license if you show up with a colander on your head.  It all depends on your state and its stance on the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and its members, who are known as Pastafarians. 

Recently a woman in Utah was allowed to wear a colander on her head for her driver's license photo.   Headgear and hats are not normally allowed for photos, but there is an exception for religious garments.  Utah has recognized the Pastafarians' church as a religion, so she was allowed to wear the colander as a religious statement.

In Illinois, a gentleman wasn't as lucky when he tried wearing a colander for his driver's license photo last year.  While state laws allow for religious head dressings that don't cover any areas of the face, the state found the headgear to be satirical and not religious.  A senior legal advisor for the state said that wearing the headgear was a form of free speech, but so is giving the finger, which also isn't allowed for a driver's license photo.

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