Funniest book I’ve read in a long time wasn’t written by a humorist, not exactly. Most of it was written by legislators, bureaucrats, and lobbyists. That makes it even funnier.
HOW TO BECOME A FEDERAL CRIMINAL is a guide to the craziest, most arcane federal laws that are still actually on the books. They’re either in the United States Code (“USC”) if they were statutes passed by Congress, or the Code of Federal Regulations (“CFR”) if they were rules set by executive branch departments and agencies, but they are the no-lie law and you can definitely be punished if you disobey. Author Mike Chase is a criminal defense lawyer who operates the @CrimeADay Twitter feed, and he’s never at a loss for material. This is essentially a greatest hits compilation, styled tongue-in-cheek as a handbook for potential lawbreakers.
It’s a daunting task, even though Mr. Chase limits himself to the federal code and the overwhelming majority of convictions in the U.S. are for violations of state laws, of which we have fifty different sets. But we’re going to set those aside for now. (Although the “Assimilative Crimes Act” allows the government to adopt any state crime from the state where fed property is located and deem it federal.) The USC/CFR code alone has grown so vast that nobody really knows its scope: “Lawyers from the Department of Justice once tried to count all the federal crimes on the books and gave up. Since then, others have tried and failed.”
Mr. Chase begins with everybody’s favorite federal crime, the one I’ll bet you’ve considered committing at least once if you haven’t actually done so. You know, the mattress tag that says DO NOT REMOVE THIS TAG UNDER PENALTY OF LAW. It’s a real law, and breaking it is punishable by fines and up to a year in prison. But it wasn’t intended for you: in fact, “ultimate consumers” like you are exempt. It’s intended instead to punish unscrupulous mattress dealers. Even the most risible laws on the books are there for some reason: as Mr. Chase writes, “we get many of our laws from people doing dumb, gross, and dangerous things.” And, “Sadly, time has shown that the crimes people will commit in the national parks are as limitless as human stupidity itself. Park visitors have been arrested for taunting bison, taking selfies with bears, and urinating into Old Faithful.”
The U.S. Code splits some interesting hairs. Although it is of course a federal crime to deface paper money, “purely recreational coin mutilation” is fine. So flatten a penny on the railroad tracks or in a penny press machine to your heart’s content; that’s for small-timers, chumps and fancy-pantses. This book is for people who affirmatively want to become actual federal criminals.
The breadth of the long arm of the law is, well, breathtaking. Here are a few examples, out of context (where they are funniest). You may not use a falconry bird in a movie that isn’t about falconry (film crews actually use lookalike birds or CGI to avoid breaking this law). In 1979 McDonalds discontinued its popular miniature coffee-stirring spoon to avoid running afoul of 21 U.S.C. § 863(a)(2), which prohibits mailing “drug paraphernalia,” after an anti-drug crusader testified to Congress that the “McSpoon” would be just jake for snorting cocaine. If you sell shingle-packed bacon, you’re a criminal if customers can’t see at least 70% of a “representative slice” through the clear plastic on the package. You may not pledge or accept stolen explosives as collateral for a loan. (Stolen explosives, mind.) There are only three forms of pasta with federally mandated shapes and dimensions, “macaroni,” “spaghetti,” and “vermicelli”; ziti and rotini are in the ristorante equivalent of Sergio Leone’s Wild West. You may not hold a child over a moat at the National Zoo. (Remember: dumb, gross and dangerous.) “Knowingly and willingly” moving a table on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) ground can make you a con. Piracy laws dating from the 18th century are still valid, even on the Great Lakes.
Stupid laws can definitely wear thin quickly beyond one-a-day Twitter length, but two features save this book from drudgery. First is the author’s droll sense of humor. His offhand remarks liven up the most idiotic of statutes. Reporting that swine sexual odor, or “boar taint,” is prohibited, Mr. Chase notes, “Aside from being a great metal band name, boar taint is said to smell like a mix of sweat, urine, and feces. Again, not unlike a metal band.” You may not take a cat on a raft trip in the Grand Canyon, causing him to observe, “The sad part about this rule is that it bars cats from doing the thing they are known to love most: white-water rafting.”
The second is a series of deadpan illustrations, drawn by the author himself, that sell the satirical perspective of a how-to book. With the innocence of a Fifties educational film, they underline the mundanity of the United States Code and make you struggle to imagine what godforsaken real-life behavior it took to get these things codified into law.
Mr. Chase winds up by swerving into bizarre but true corners of the U.S.C., by naming actual, genuine lawsuits that have been brought in federal court: United States v. Twenty-Five Packages of Panama Hats, United States v. Seventy-Five Boxes of Alleged Pepper, United States v. Thirty-Dozen Packages of Roach Food, and my personal favorite, United States v. 11 1/4 Dozen Packages of Article Labeled in Part Mrs. Moffat’s Shoo Fly Powders for Drunkenness. He also details how cigarette lighter manufacturers are required by law to test the safety of their lighters on at least one hundred children between 3 1/2 and 4 1/4 years of age by deliberately letting the toddlers play with them.
But the pièce de résistance comes in 1971, when the USDA Forest Service introduces a cartoon character named Woodsy Owl. You may remember his slogan: “g-ve a h—t, d-n’t po—ute.” I didn’t print that because it’s against the law to use this slogan for profit without the prior approval of the Secretary of Agriculture, and no blog post (there are ads below) is worth facing federal hard time, Jack. The hilariously banal testimony before both houses of Congress, with Mr. Chase carefully redacting the protected phrase, is laugh-out-loud funny. Leave it to Rep. Gene Snyder (R-KY) to sum it up: “Angela Davis is loose. The Chicago Seven are loose. Ellsberg is loose after giving away the secrets of the country and so on. Now we want to send somebody to jail for saying, ‘G—- a h—-, d—- poll—-.’”
Sometimes stuff like this can make you irritated. But Mr. Chase is such a genial host that ineptitude is reduced to entertainment. Don’t take the government so seriously, he says. That’s not a bad message for these times.