Getting rid of outdated laws

City councilman proposes to delete, alter old rules

December 05, 2008|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,

It is illegal in Baltimore to leave a hogshead in the street for 12 hours, punishable by a $1 fine.

A city law says merchants can't sell contraceptives to anyone under age 16, though municipal programs distribute condoms for free.

And, technically, city officials could issue a $100 fine every time a performer pauses while Orioles fans yell "O" as "The Star-Spangled Banner" is sung at a baseball game.

These and other anachronistic bits of Baltimore code should be deleted or updated, according to City Councilman James B. Kraft, who introduced a raft of legislation yesterday to modernize police ordinances.

Some of the rules are unenforceable, he said, and others wouldn't pass constitutional muster. In other cases, Kraft seeks to clean up archaic language and increase fines.

A lawyer, Kraft said he read each of thousands of dense pages of city code after his first election in 2004, filing away odd regulations he noted. Now, as head of the council's Judiciary Committee, he said the time has come to make updates.

"When we put a law on the books, it should mean something," Kraft said in an interview at his City Hall office. "Some of these laws are really old, and they are not applicable."

The proposal with the greatest potential for attention is Kraft's quest to repeal a city rule governing the performance of "The Star- Spangled Banner."

A 1916 ordinance says the song must be sung "as an entire and separate composition or number without embellishments of national or other melodies." It was adopted 15 years before Congress designated the melody as the country's anthem.

In July 1916, city police distributed copies of the new rule to theaters and music halls, along with a statement explaining that altering the song's composition "tends to lower the esteem and reverence" of it, according to a Sun article from the time.

The measure sparked a fury, with local papers publishing numerous letters in opposition. The New York Times weighed in in September 1916, saying: "It is seldon [sic] that a municipal ordinance provokes as much general criticism as the one recently enacted by the City Council of Baltimore." The Times story quotes an unnamed official "very high in city government" saying "there will be no prosecutions under this ordinance."

Kraft believes that removing the restrictions is the "patriotic thing to do," because it would endorse performances of all types.

The councilman zipped through explanations of the anthem bill and a dozen others at a council lunch yesterday, with few colleagues objecting to the ideas. Councilman Robert W. Curran, the former chair of the Judiciary Committee, sounded upbeat afterward, saying, "I applaud his effort."

Another Kraft bill introduced yesterday would lift a ban on the sale of condoms to people younger than 16, which is punishable by a fine of between $10 and $100.

The ban was passed in 1946, along with another measure prohibiting children from entering a "place of amusement during school hours," according to story in the Baltimore Afro-American. An Afro editorial warned that the pair of rules would be unenforceable, opining that: "An unforced law is sometimes worse than no law."

The contraception sale ban was effectively knocked down by a 1977 Supreme Court decision that found a similar New York law unconstitutional.

Despite the local rule, Baltimore's school-based health clinics make contraceptives available at no cost with parental consent, said city Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein. The practice is considered an "accepted part of adolescent health care" nationwide, he said.

Kraft quipped yesterday that sexually active 14- and 15-year-olds need contraception more then anyone.

Another bill would remove an 1885 ordinance that requires police officers to force Department of Public Works employees to clear snow after a storm. Kraft also seeks to repeal a measure that prevents people from selling portions of their train tickets. "Nobody does that," he said.

Kraft chuckled when discussing his quest to remove 1858 language specifying that "any barrel, hogshead, box, [or] crate" must be cleared from the street. A hogshead, defined as a "large cask or barrel" by Webster's Third New International Dictionary, has fallen out of common use.

In 1888, the City Council determined that citizens needed to get permission from the mayor if they wanted to have a "parade of drum corps, bands, or other bodies blowing horns and beating drums through the streets between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m." That was updated in 1891 to include "political organizations." Violating the rule can be penalized by a $25 fine.

Kraft wants to shift parade permit responsibility to the Department of General Services, with violators facing a $500 fine.

Other proposed fines include $250 for fleeing a taxi without payment, up from $50; and $1,000 plus the cost of repairs for vandalizing city property such as light poles, up from $50.

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