Academic Officiousness Gets Results:

I'm pleased to report that the city of Pipestone, Minnesota (pop. 4000) has amended City Code ch. 10 § 10.01, subd. 1E to read

It is unlawful for any person to: ...

E. Possess any other dangerous article or substance for the purpose of being used unlawfully as a weapon against another; ...

It had earlier read,

It is unlawful for any person to: ...

E. Possess any other dangerous article or substance for the purpose of being used lawfully as a weapon against another; ...

I ran across this in doing research for my article on nonlethal weapons, and e-mailed the city attorney's office to ask whether this was a typo; I was told that it was, and then to my surprise was told that -- now that they knew about it -- the city would change it. Woohoo! Now that's high impact law reform work for you. I hope my dean gives me suitable credit.

(Note that the change happened a few months ago, but I only now remembered to check on whether it had indeed happened.)

Good catch. It reminds me of an old state law opinion (Alabama, I think) where the statute said that a witness could be crossed in "any unlawful manner" or similar language. Invoking an "absurd results" doctrine, the court basically rewrote the statute to say "lawful." I sadly cannot find the opinion at the moment.
9.24.2009 4:49pm
I bet the error in the law wouldn't have existed in the first place if legislators read the statute before it was passed. (rimshot)
9.24.2009 4:57pm
martinned (mail) (www):
King of all typos:

When I lived in Brussels, the newspapers reported on a study that showed dozens of differences between the French and Dutch language versions of their statutes. And these weren't harmless errors, some of them included extra zeros added to fines. (€ 10.000 for the Walloons vs. € 100.000 for the Flemish, that kind of thing.)
9.24.2009 5:00pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
That is really funny.


(€ 10.000 for the Walloons vs. € 100.000 for the Flemish, that kind of thing.)

For clarity, I will translate this into American ;-)

(€ 10,000 for the Walloons vs. € 100,000 for the Flemish, that kind of thing.)

Interestingly though the UK has this problem too. And yes, extra review is often a good thing.
9.24.2009 5:06pm
Badness (mail):

When I lived in Brussels, the newspapers reported on a study that showed dozens of differences between the French and Dutch language versions of their statutes. And these weren't harmless errors, some of them included extra zeros added to fines. (€ 10.000 for the Walloons vs. € 100.000 for the Flemish, that kind of thing.)

You sure that was an accident and not an attempt by the Waloons to squeeze the (now) better-off slice of the Belgian populace? ;)
9.24.2009 5:11pm
How on earth did you even begin to look at the city code of Pipestone, MN? I find more interesting than the typo in their code the chain of research that lead you to looking at the code.
9.24.2009 5:15pm
Jake Parsley (mail):
As a native-born Pipestonian, I thank you for your contribution to our local governance. I'm sure all the farmers sitting around having coffee at Lange's Cafe would be tickled by all the academic elites discussing their humble city code!
9.24.2009 5:42pm
Well, now Eugene knows for certain his life hasn't been a complete waste -- how many of the rest of us can say the same?

Supposedly, some law was supposed to tax imported "vegetables, fruit, trees, and bushes" but the text accidentally omitted the second comma, making all fruit, and all trees that weren't fruit trees, exempt.
9.24.2009 6:58pm
While the post is humble and makes it seem like this is no big deal, in fact, plain old mistakes like this one frequently cause all manner of litigation havoc. Indeed, the U.S. and its local governments are probably more prone to this problem than most goverments with parliamentary systems.

In the U.K., for example, in practice, policy is formulated by cabinet and undercabinet officials who do not have to negotiate every word and clause and have the assistant of skilled senior civil servants. Majority coalition back benchers, rather than conducting the heated policy debates through parliamentary procedure that occur in U.S. federal, state and sometimes local legislatures, instead spend a much larger share of their time looking for inadvertant errors or unforeseen implications that are not desired by the legislative authors. The House of Lords offers further opportunities for decent and measured consideration of secondary issues like drafting points.

In the U.S. federal and state legislative system, in contrast, we have lots of chiefs but no Indians, no members have much staff time that can be devoted to legislating as opposed to merely running interference for members vis-a-vis constituents (answering mail and phone calls, doing constituent service, maintaining social calendars, etc.), and the civil service is more detached from law makers. Also, because party discipline is weaker, language can be amended in any place at almost any stage of the process by parties who don't have the same loyalty to the drafters.

This kind of issue isn't restricted to legislation of little importance that no one is monitoring either. The key choke points in the legislative process where amendments can happen very quickly on big issues including the federal death penalty (where two simultaneous amendments of the same code section in greatly seperated parts of an omnibus law had an unintended combined effect), mandatory minimum sentences impacting tens of thousands of people (the infamous "hanging paragraph" that has produced multiple circuit splits and U.S. Supreme Court resolutions), and billion dollar tax issues. Indeed, it is the key compromises enacted in the heat of the moment, rather than the original language of bills drafted at leisure that is particularly prone to mistake.

Yet, doctrines of formalism and the strength of precedents are so far in ascendancy, and notions of legislative intent have fallen so far into disrepute, that judges routinely contort themselves grossly to find way to fit language that is very likely the product of a mere drafting error into binding law, even if it isn't a very sensible result. Legislative bodies have a strong track record of refusing to address their own mistakes, even if they are generating large amounts of case law, and legislators have been made aware of ambiguities -- the main virtue of law making through the common law is that you can count on the judicial legislators at least paying attention and understanding what is at stake most of the time.

I can think of only one case (a court rule where a deadline was logically impossible to ever comply with) where judges have actually done the legal equivalent of calling black white, even though examples of that kind of mistake, like the one in this town ordinance, are really not that unusual.
9.24.2009 7:17pm
Can't find a good name:
In my city, individual precincts can vote to ban the retail sale of alcohol within their boundaries, and at each general election there are a few precinct referenda to either ban alcohol sales, or to allow them again.

Once, I was reading the sample ballot and noticed that in one precinct, the question in English read, "Shall the sale of alcoholic beverages at retail be permitted in this precinct?" while the Spanish version began, "Será prohibida ...."

I tried calling the city board of elections to point this out in advance of the election, but I was unable to get anyone to take sufficient interest to call me back.
9.24.2009 10:22pm
Brooks Lyman (mail):
At a quick glance, this law would appear (unless there is some other law in the city code that corrects the problem) to ban the use of weapons for self-defense. Am I missing something here?
9.24.2009 11:35pm
Visitor Again:
Can't sleep and so some frivolous late-night fancies:

Would it have been a defense, under the law as previously phrased, that the defendant possessed the dangerous article for the purpose of using it unlawfully as a weapon against another? And s the defendant who could prove he got the item to butcher his family gets off, at least on this charge?

Had a person who acquired a dangerous article to kill someone been charged with this offense under the old version, he might argue (among many other things) that the statute as written (and not judicially construed otherwise) failed to give him notice that his conduct was prohibited, in violation of due process. This might raise the question whether a reasonable man would recognize that "lawfully" was a typo and that the statute actually meant "unlawfully." Eugene Volokh recognized that was so, but is Eugene Volokh that reasonable man?
9.25.2009 4:59am
David Schwartz (mail):
No, it didn't prohibit the use of weapons for self-defense. It only prohibits *lawful* use, and if the use of weapons for self-defense were prohibited by any law, they would not be a lawful use, and thus not prohibited by this law. Since the assumption that it prohibits self-defense leads to a contradiction, it must be false.

The original law was, as written, a nullity. An attempt to fix it by divining legislative intent would undoubtedly make the fix that was ultimately made.
9.25.2009 5:01am

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