The Washington Post
Still illegal: Riding your horse too fast, cursing in public
After Congress snuffs D.C.’S revised code, archaic offenses remain on the books
When D.C. embarked on a years-long process to overhaul its criminal code, one of the things city council members set out to do was remove from the books antiquated laws that are not relevant to modern society. But with Congress moving to nix the overhaul — concerned over other provisions, such as the lessening of statutory maximum penalties for carjacking — some of the outmoded measures technically remain in effect.
Many of the laws are no longer applicable, and they are definitely not being enforced. Some were already stricken decades ago — including a ban on flying kites, which was scrapped in 1970. Others, with roots dating back to England in the 1700s, have been rendered moot by court rulings. Still others have been revised through subsequent legislation, but the original language was never removed from the official record.
Here are five things you technically can’t do in the District.
1. Play games with balls on city streets, like ‘Shindy’ and ‘Bandy’
A law passed in 1892 made it unlawful to “play the game of football, or any other game with a ball” on public streets or alleys. The law specifically prohibits “Shindy” and “Bandy,’ which are games similar to hockey but played with balls. “Shinty,” as it is commonly spelled now, is played on a field, while Bandy is played on ice. Whatever they’re called, playing any of these games on a D.C. street could get you a $5 fine.
2. Be a ‘common scold’
Being a troublesome or quarrelsome person — defined as a “common scold” — technically remains illegal, though the law is probably unenforceable. Even a D.C. court in 1829 ruled “the offense is not well defined in any adjudged case.”
The term appeared to apply to people who interrupted the public peace, which might today be referred to as “disorderly conduct.” The punishment for the crime — “ducking” — does not appear to have a modern parallel. Those convicted were strapped to chairs and dunked into water.
The defendant in the 1829 D.C. case was convicted, but the court ruled even back then that “ducking” had become obsolete in England. The court instead fined the woman and ordered her to be “on good behavior for one year.”
3. Curse in public
In 1892, Congress criminalized cursing in public in the District, lumping it in with the crime of vagrancy. It made it unlawful “for any person or persons to curse, or make use of any profane language or any indecent or obscene words.”
Courts in subsequent years have taken a far different approach to free speech. The fine 131 years ago: $20. The same law also equates making an obscene gesture with the crime of indecent exposure, both punishable with fines up to $250.
4. Ride ‘any animal of the horse kind’ too fast
When cars weren’t so prevalent, it was illegal to ride “any animal of the horse kind” in D.C. at “a rate of speed exceeding eight miles per hour.” It was also illegal to turn a corner with a horse going more than 4 mph.
Whether the law remains technically in force, though, is somewhat unclear. Notes from the commission that reviewed D.C.’S code as part of the overhaul say it may have been repealed, but because the group couldn’t confirm that, the overhaul would formally remove it.
At least at one point, police took this infraction very seriously. In 1872, a constable named William H. West, a Black veteran who fought in the Civil War, cited Ulysses S. Grant for racing his horsedrawn buggy west on M Street while he was president.
According to “The Metropolitan Police Department 150th Anniversary” book, West grabbed the horse’s bridle and was dragged 50 feet down the road before the president stopped.
The book says that in one account, police impounded Grant’s horse and buggy but did not fine him, worried about criminally charging a sitting president. In another account, the book says Grant was fined $20.
Grant was a prolific speeder, according to the history book, racking up tickets even before he took office, including in 1866 when he was commander of the Army of the Potomac. In those cases, he was fined $5.
5. Pass milk off as something else
Filling a carton or a jar with “milk or cream,” or any other beverage, and trying to sell it as something else, can put you in jail for up to a year.
In the 1800s, this was called “unauthorized use” — a term authorities still use today, though it now refers to taking a vehicle without the owner’s permission.
Back then, it described the illegal act of trying to pass off one beverage as another kind of beverage. A first offense earned a 50-cent fine. Subsequent offenses brought fines up to $5 and a stint behind bars.