If Massachusetts repeals its law against vagabonds, don’t worry. You’ll still be safe at the railroad depot.
Under an old state statute, a person who is “known to be a pickpocket, thief, or burglar” and is “acting in a suspicious manner around any steamboat landing, railroad depot, or any electric railway station” shall be “deemed a vagabond” and imprisoned for four to 12 months. The law, which would jail people based on their reputation, is blatantly unconstitutional. It also reads like a zany, steampunk-festival version of criminal justice policy; the quaint terminology in the law evokes cops with tall helmets and handlebar mustaches.
Sadly, the more self-evidently silly and obsolete a law is, the more tempting it is for lawmakers just to leave it in place. For years, state Representative Byron Rushing has been trying to clear away legal cobwebs left over from a variety of eras — Puritan-inspired bans on blasphemy and fornication; railroad-age laws against vagabonds or the tramps who stow away on freight trains; Red Scare-style restrictions on the Communist Party. For Rushing, a Boston Democrat, progress has been slow. “It’s not easy,” he concedes, “to get my colleagues to focus in on this.”
They should. The very act of deciding which laws are outdated forces lawmakers — and all of us, really — to think harder about whether the laws we demand today will stand up over time, and about which duties government agencies should take on to begin with. Morals police? Suppressor of dangerous ideas? None of the above?
This year, the Judiciary Committee has advanced a piece of compromise legislation that incorporates many of Rushing’s suggestions. Even that big step has been easy to mock. “Is Beacon Hill on track to make Massachusetts safe for fornicating communists?” asked a cheeky headline on a recent WGBH story about the bill.
Rushing isn’t the only one scouring the law books looking for antiques. Governor Charlie Baker is pushing a “municipal modernization” bill, which he describes as a “weed whacking” for old rules binding local governments. For instance, Baker would get rid of a law directing the Division of Local Services to supervise certain county financial and employment matters — even though county governments have largely withered in Massachusetts and the agency no longer provides such oversight to those that remain.
Other ancient quirks in the law reveal themselves only when some agency suddenly decides to enforce them.
For 16 years, Rich Pelletier, the owner of Nashoba Valley Winery in Bolton, has sold homemade beverages at the restaurant on his property. By the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission’s current interpretation of the law, you’re not supposed to have a license to pour alcohol if you have a license to manufacture it.
Pelletier held both, and the commission recently demanded that he choose. The issue came to light, according to the office of state Treasurer Deb Goldberg, who oversees the agency, when an upgraded computer system rejected his attempt to renew his licenses. (Here’s an economic-development slogan you’ll never see: “Massachusetts, the Innovation Hub Where the Laws Are Old and Clunky but At Least We Apply Them Electronically.”)
Pelletier will prevail. Baker rallied to his side. Goldberg proposed a change in the law. While Attorney General Maura Healey maintains that “in context” current law “must be read” to allow Nashoba Valley to get its licenses renewed, the Legislature should still clear up any ambiguity in alcohol laws designed for post-Prohibition business models, not the farm-to-table movement.
Obsolescence is in the eye of the beholder, of course. I’d argue that the Massachusetts zoning code reflects 1960s and ’70s suburban values, to the state’s detriment, but lots of municipal officials like it the way it is.
Even Rushing expresses an iota of sympathy for the blue laws restricting commercial activities on Sundays and holidays. Among progressive churches, he says, there’s a movement to uphold the idea that working people deserve a day of rest. Blue laws are a crude tool, but their persistence, Rushing says, “comes from not being able to get people to talk about an alternative, to find a way to do the things that you really want.”
Cleaning up the legal code could force the state to discuss these issues in a forthright way. Lawmakers, who usually have more immediate obligations, such as passing a budget, could use some help. Rushing wants the state to set up a standing commission, as New York, New Jersey, and California have, that would systematically review state statutes and identify candidates for repeal or revision.
That’s reasonable. Massachusetts laws need to work for today’s economy and society, rather than trying to scare tramps and vagabonds away from steamboat landings.