Old Michigan laws: seduction, cursing, train drunkenness bans still on books
Maybe you’ve been tipsy on a train, or opted for a topless tan. Maybe you’ve taken the Lord’s name in vain, or disturbed someone “in the quiet and peaceable pursuit of his lawful occupation.”
Even Michigan’s most stand-up citizens have probably run afoul of an archaic state law at one point or another, technically committing misdemeanors under outdated criminal codes gathering dust in state archives alongside more obvious crimes like murder, assault and theft.
Most of the weirdest bans still on Michigan’s books, like train drunkenness, seducing an unmarried woman or unhitching horses without authority can be traced back to a 1931 law that outlined the state’s penal code, spelling out a host of criminal acts and the prescribed penalties for them.
Some of those penalties have been rendered unenforceable by court decisions or constitutional changes, while others have simply fallen out of fashion as the times have changed and are rarely, if ever, enforced.
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But in some cases, so-called “zombie” laws have reared their heads to become relevant again — most notably in the case of Michigan’s long-dormant abortion ban, rendered unenforceable by the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision but brought back into the spotlight when federal abortion protections were overturned in June 2022.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her allies in the Democratic-majority House and Senate made quick work of striking the abortion ban and related crimes from the books. Just before signing the repeal into law, Whitmer said the ban would live on as a "threat coming back to haunt us all” if it wasn’t removed.
Past legislatures have also taken the time to revisit and repeal old laws — thanks to their work, you can now legally swear in front of women and children, participate in endurance contests like walk-a-thons, play nontraditional versions of the Star Spangled Banner and breastfeed in public without the risk of getting arrested for indecent exposure.
The Michigan Senate took the latest step to oust an outdated crime this week, voting 29-9 to repeal a ban on unmarried men and women "lewdly and lasciviously" living together.
That ban hasn’t been enforced in modern times, but supporters of the repeal say the language causes tax filing issues for some unmarried couples, especially when claiming dependent children. The bill is now headed to the House for further review, and legislative Democrats have expressed openness to rooting out and repealing other “zombie” laws.
Bridge Michigan did a little digging into Michigan’s penal code to explore what other activities former lawmakers considered nefarious enough to be a crime. Read on or dive into the 1931 law itself to determine whether you’ve broken a lesser-known Michigan law (or several).
As the lewd and lascivious cohabitation ban might suggest, Michigan lawmakers of yore were not fond of pretty much any coupling outside of the confines of heterosexual marriage, or even rumors of such activity.
While the laws aren’t typically enforced, they still exist in Michigan’s criminal code.
Under the 1931 law that’s still on the books, a man could be charged with a five-year felony for seducing or otherwise debauching an unmarried woman. Adultery can also be considered a felony in Michigan if the husband or wife of a cheating spouse complains, or if a former couple lives together after getting divorced.
Falsely claiming a woman is for “want of chastity” — in other words, isn’t a virgin — is also technically still grounds for a misdemeanor.
Same-sex marriage bans
Old laws in Michigan also include several bans on same-sex marriage and sex acts, including punishing sodomy by up to 15 years in prison. A state constitutional amendment, passed by voters in 2004, limited marriage to heterosexual couples.
Laws barring same-sex marriage and sexual activity are unenforceable after same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S., although the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn federal abortion abortion rights have civil rights advocates fearing legal decisions upholding the right to contraception and same-sex marriage could be next.
In June 2022, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said Michigan residents “could be in real trouble” if the court revisits same-sex marriage rights, calling Roe “the building block upon which many other important rulings stood and were held.”
Sneaky sales, party lines, Sunday drives
Michigan laws occasionally include bans on things that haven’t been an issue in quite some time — including “bucket shops,” businesses popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that involved betting based on stock prices of certain goods.
Another archaic law deals with “party line” phones, a practice that’s no longer common involving several households sharing the same phone number. Anyone who refused to yield the line so a person could report an emergency, or falsely claim an emergency to use the line, could be charged with a misdemeanor.
But some laws restricting certain sales remain relevant today.
A 1953 Michigan law bans individuals and corporations alike from selling cars on a Sunday.
Hold your horses
When the 1931 criminal code was written, working animals played a larger role in everyone’s day-to-day life. Statutes that seem oddly specific to modern readers remain on the books.
Animal-related misdemeanors still on the books include unhitching and driving away horses without authority, allowing domestic animals or fowl to run amok at cemeteries or airports or allowing bulls to run at large on a highway or unenclosed land.
There’s a whole separate “dog law” statute created in 1919 that by and large still governs rules around dog licensing and tracking — if you don’t license your dog at the county level, you’re technically breaking state law. That statute also includes a few eyebrow-raising bans, though, including a ban on electrocuting a dog.
Indecency in public
Under a 1913 law, Michigan residents are barred from entering or remaining on a train “while in an offensive state of intoxication.” Doing so could result in a misdemeanor.
In Michigan, it also remains illegal to be naked in public in any context.
In 2014, an amendment to the law was approved that exempts breastfeeding mothers from the ban, but women wishing to “free the nipple” – to go topless in public – remain out of luck. Breasts are included under Michigan’s indecent exposure ban.
Taking the Lord’s name in vain
Michigan lawmakers past also opted to make one of the oft-broken Ten Commandments a criminal act.
Any adult “who shall profanely curse or damn or swear by the name of God, Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost” can technically be charged with a misdemeanor under this 1931 law — but only if prosecutors take up the case within five days after the unholy words were uttered.
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