If you damage Baltimore's water supply in the name of, say, your religious guru, the city code says you risk a fine of not more than $20. But if you are caught illegally opening a fire hydrant, you face a $50 fine.
It is against the law in Baltimore to block sidewalks with boxes. The fine for that crime: $1. Likewise, anyone caught throwing bales -- of anything, presumably -- out of an "upper story window" faces a $20 fine.
And, sports fans will note, city law says it is illegal to play professional croquet -- or basketball, lacrosse, quoits, soccer or hockey, for that matter -- on Sundays before 2 p.m. But every promoter knows tickets of admission may be sold and patrons admitted for events after noon.
Such oddities are common throughout the 1,315 pages of the city code, which is currently undergoing its first major rewrite since it was compiled in 1879.
Researchers are finding that many of the code's provisions are cumbersome, superseded by state law or simply outdated.
Take the provisions regarding live fowl and baby chicks. Baby chicks can not be sold within two weeks of Easter in quantities under four. Violators face a $25 fine. And you risk a $2 fine if you sell live fowl that are tied by the legs.
Roving bands of Gypsies, meanwhile, face six months in jail or a $500 fine if they wander through the city without first obtaining a license.
"Rewriting the law is a long, slow, steady process," says Bernard F. Murphy, director of the city Department of Legislative Refer
ence, which is overseeing the $150,000 rewrite project. "It is tedious work. It conjures the image of a gaggle of monks hunched over in the dome of City Hall toiling away."
Not quite. In reality, a small team of lawyers, under contract for $25 to $35 an hour, has been working part time since 1987 to unclutter the city code. Murphy says their work, which must be cleared by city officials and the City Council, should be finished in two years.
vTC "Statute drafting is sort of an esoteric corner of the world," says Pamela Baldwin, a legislative attorney at the Library of Congress, who is working on the project. She says her experience working on a code revision for the state of Maryland and as a bill drafter in Annapolis has led to many offers to moonlight as a code reviser.
Baldwin says the Baltimore code is striking in several ways. One interesting facet, she says, is the number of fines "that are so low they are useless." Also, she is amused by the very specific way the code deals with waste disposal.
City law specifically regulates the disposal of hogs' heads, pet droppings, oyster shells, animal carcasses, lumber, boxes, crates and ash.
"We developed a phenomenal number of provisions regulating the disposal of trash," Baldwin says. "The anthropologists say the Eskimos have 32 words for snow because it is so central to their lives. If that's true, one can surmise that trash is central to the life of Baltimore."
Another code reviser, Larry M. Eig, who also works at the Library of Congress, says he finds himself thinking about city law at the strangest times.
He says he was at Memorial Stadium, watching the Orioles get pummeled on Opening Day, when he noticed a small airplane fly over the field. Rather than read the advertisement trailing the plane, Eig says, he lost himself in a thought: "Isn't that against the law?"
It is. It's right there in Article 19, Section 2 of the code. The 1927 law says that it is unlawful for "airplanes or any kind of flying machines" to fly over Baltimore's municipal stadium during a sporting event. The law carries a fairly stiff fine of not less than $500.
Eig says he often loses himself in the minutiae of the city code.
He asks himself why is it that Baltimore imposes only a $10 fine for driving a car on the sidewalk but demands $17 if a car is parked at an expired meter. He also wonders why dog shows are banned on Sundays before 10 a.m. and legal after that time only if they benefit charity. The 1966 law carries a fine of up to $100.
Says Eig: "It's impossible to go around the city and not think about this stuff."