0103-WeirdLawsASF

North Carolina has a number of outdated, unconstitutional or just plain strange laws on the books. And while some deal with serious issues, others are decidedly sillier.

The News & Observer has also reported on the more consequential issues, like the fact that North Carolina still has unconstitutional laws on the books that include things like racist literacy tests, mandatory religious beliefs for politicians and anti-LGBTQ laws that ban gay people from getting married or being allowed the same domestic violence protections as straight people.

They’re unenforceable, at least as long as court rulings remain in place calling them unconstitutional.

But it’s not just laws targeting people for their race, sexuality and religious beliefs that remain on the books in North Carolina. There are a number of just-plain-strange laws, too.

Previous articles on similar topics have claimed, as one fun example, that it’s against the law in North Carolina to use an elephant to plow a cotton field.

But The N&O was unable to verify this, and a search of the N.C. General Statutes shows no mentions of either “elephant” or “pachyderm” in any law. The plowing-related laws are geared toward more boring issues, like the maximum legal size of a snow plow blade (12 feet wide unless you have a special permit, for those wondering).

North Carolina law says the maximum legal size of a snow plow blade is 12 feet wide unless you have a special permit.
North Carolina law says the maximum legal size of a snow plow blade is 12 feet wide unless you have a special permit.

Sex and booze

Another common urban legend, often wielded cynically against college sororities, is that any group of unmarried women living together is technically classified as a brothel. Not the case. Some college towns might have local rules intended to ban any large groups of students from living together off-campus, but there’s no statewide law about it.

A common urban legend, often wielded cynically against college sororities, is that any group of unmarried women living together is technically classified as a brothel. This is not true. Some college towns might have local rules intended to ban any large groups of students from living together off-campus, but there’s no statewide law about it.
A common urban legend, often wielded cynically against college sororities, is that any group of unmarried women living together is technically classified as a brothel. This is not true. Some college towns might have local rules intended to ban any large groups of students from living together off-campus, but there’s no statewide law about it.

It does remain technically illegal to have an unmarried romp in a hotel — although in perhaps an accidentally progressive twist, the law appears to allow same-sex dalliances. It applies only to “Any man and woman found occupying the same bedroom ... for any immoral purpose.”

It does remain technically illegal to have an unmarried romp in a hotel.
It does remain technically illegal to have an unmarried romp in a hotel.

That’s perhaps due to the fact that the law dates to 1917.

There’s a different law that bans sexual “crimes against nature,” which is often cited as an anti-gay law, but is much broader than that.

The state doesn’t officially define that term, and over the years judges and juries have decided that it applies to anyone — even straight, consenting adults — who engage in oral sex, anal sex, or the use of foreign objects.

Oral sex was first deemed illegal in an 1876 case, UNC’s Criminal Law Blog helpfully catalogs; other rulings added to the list of banned activities as recently as 2004.

Prudishness about people’s private lives isn’t the only type of motivation common to laws throughout the Bible Belt, either.

North Carolina also has a long history with alcohol, banning its sale a century ago even before Prohibition passed nationally, and still maintaining many Prohibition-era laws to this day.

Happy hours are illegal, for example, and liquor stores can’t open on Sundays or on holidays like Christmas.

And until recently, grocery stores and restaurants were also banned from selling any sort of alcohol on Sunday until the clock struck noon. A recent compromise at the legislature lowered it to 10 a.m., but also allowed individual counties to reject the change.

Until recently, grocery stores and restaurants were also banned from selling any sort of alcohol on Sunday until the clock struck noon. A recent compromise at the legislature lowered it to 10 a.m., but also allowed individual counties to reject the change. Here, Taylor Cranford, Nicole Smith and Peyton Nance share a laugh over a beer in Kannapolis in 2022.
Until recently, grocery stores and restaurants were also banned from selling any sort of alcohol on Sunday until the clock struck noon. A recent compromise at the legislature lowered it to 10 a.m., but also allowed individual counties to reject the change. Here, Taylor Cranford, Nicole Smith and Peyton Nance share a laugh over a beer in Kannapolis in 2022.

Yes to possum crimes

One law makes it so that no animal abuse crimes apply to any possums, but only possums, for a few days every year.

Lawmakers didn’t do it to promote a Possum Purge against the official state marsupial. Rather, they passed the law a few years ago as way to taunt PETA.

The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals had sued a small Western North Carolina town for animal cruelty — and won, forcing the town to stop its popular “possum drop” on New Year’s Eve.

The legislature decided if that tradition broke the law, then the answer was to to make possum crimes legal, at least from Dec. 29 to Jan. 2.

A two month old orphaned possum.
A two month old orphaned possum.

Cussing, singing and more

Anyone who flew over the holidays might be surprised to learn it’s illegal to cuss inside an airport in North Carolina.

Anyone who flew over the holidays might be surprised to learn it’s illegal to cuss inside an airport in North Carolina.
Anyone who flew over the holidays might be surprised to learn it’s illegal to cuss inside an airport in North Carolina.

There’s a good chance many would-be travelers on Southwest Airlines may have been guilty of committing that particular crime, when the company canceled thousands of flights in the days right around Christmas. It’s the lowest level of misdemeanor, however, so only people with five or more prior convictions would face the possibility of being locked up behind bars for their potty mouth.

Airline executives aren’t among the licensed professions in North Carolina where people who screw up can be banned from working in the future; those are limited to jobs like lawyers, doctors, engineers, architects and funeral directors, to name a few.

But also on the list of licensed professions? Photographer.

That’s right — if anyone pays you for photos, you shouldn’t just pay sales taxes. You’ll also need to give the government $50 for the “privilege tax” of becoming an officially licensed photographer. (Fun fact, according to the state Department of Revenue: It’s impossible to pay privilege taxes online.)

If you had a flight delayed around the holidays, here’s hoping you didn’t cuss up a storm. You might be surprised to learn that it’s illegal to curse inside an airport in North Carolina.
If you had a flight delayed around the holidays, here’s hoping you didn’t cuss up a storm. You might be surprised to learn that it’s illegal to curse inside an airport in North Carolina.

Taxes are used to fund things like schools, which also have some laws that can appear somewhat antiquated in the modern world.

For example, teachers are legally required to “encourage temperance, morality, industry, and neatness” among their students, and to make sure they learn to sing. A state law, originally written in 1955 and updated as recently as 2013, says teachers must “provide for singing in the school” in addition to their other educational duties.

But teachers, just be careful not to be too loud if the school is near a church or a cemetery. And maybe avoid “Baby Shark” as an additional precaution.

That’s because of a different law, passed in 2006, that says people can be charged with a felony if they annoy mourners at a funeral by singing (or chanting, yelling or whistling).

That law is potentially unconstitutional and was written “no doubt in response to funeral protests by groups like Westboro Baptist Church,” UNC Law School professor Jessica Smith wrote in 2013 when the legislature made the law even stricter, by making such actions illegal not just during a funeral or memorial but also within two hours before or after the service.

More odd laws

Legal to drink underage, but only at school: OK, this is a bit of clickbait. But state law does allow underage kids to legally drink alcohol if it’s done under supervision, as part of their instruction at a culinary school.

No cursing around public transit? It’s a crime to “engage in disorderly conduct, or use vulgar, obscene or profane language, or ... loiter and loaf upon the premises” at either an airport, a bus depot or a train station.

Butt laws: The word “buttocks” appears in seven different state statutes, including an alcohol law that says any business licensed to serve drinks must not allow “any conduct or entertainment that includes the fondling of the breasts, buttocks,” or certain other body parts. (Lawmakers did write a carveout in 2003 for “performances ... expressing matters of serious literary, artistic, scientific, or political value.”)

No to naughty phone calls? A law originally written in 1913, and updated last in 2000, bans people from using a telephone to harass or extort people. But it also bans “vulgar, lewd, lascivious or indecent” conversations. Hubba hubba.

But yes to naughty license plates? The state is famously strict toward edgy vanity license plates. The DMV even recently made national news for first approving, but later taking away, an Asheville woman’s FART license plate. However, a little state-endorsed innuendo is sometimes acceptable. In addition to phrases like “First In Flight” or “In God We Trust” the DMV also offers a specialty plate with the phrase “I’d rather be shaggin’,” in honor of the state’s mid-20th-century beach music scene.

DMV can take political stances: It’s also legal for the Division of Motor Vehicles to endorse one side of controversial political issues, by issuing license plates that support only one side of the debate but not the other. The American Civil Liberties Union sued over this a few years ago but lost, and the DMV currently offers anti-abortion plates (but not plates supporting abortion rights), as well as pro-NRA plates (but not plates supporting gun control). There also used to be a Confederate flag plate, although the state stopped issuing that in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.

The “Choose Life” NC license plate
The “Choose Life” NC license plate

Your drug dealer should be paying taxes: Similar to the law that famously took down Al Capone, North Carolina technically requires modern-day moonshiners and bootleggers, plus drug dealers, to pay state taxes on their illegal sales. A gram of cocaine is taxed at $50, while a gram of marijuana is just $3.50. A gallon of illicit moonshine is taxed at $31.70 per gallon if you’re up a holler buying it by the drink. But like with anything else, there’s a discount for committing crimes in bulk — taxes are just $12.80 per gallon for wholesale white lightning.