Obeying laws today is knowing which ones to bend
“Breakin’ rocks in the hot sun/I fought the law — and the law won.” — written by Sonny Curtis, performed by the Crickets, the Bobby Fuller Four, and the Clash.
Ah, the good old days! When laws were laws, criminals were caught, and punishment was certain. Do we still fight the law? Or have the laws, ordinances and regulations that govern our lives become so numerous and/or expensive to enforce that both citizens and cops routinely ignore them?
Maybe we can’t get away with murder, but we can get away with a lot of minor transgressions, and even a few major ones.
In the past week, I’ve broken the law more than once.
- Parking meter violations, at least three. Didn’t have change and/or thought I could get away with it.
- Riding bicycle through four-way stop signs (35 times). Looks bad, but I ride from 6:15 to 7:15 every morning. The streets are empty, I have a clear view of any oncoming traffic, and it’s my life to risk. Feeble excuses? Yeah.
- Failing to stop my dog from barking at/appearing to menace passers-by (40+ times). Hey, it’s the Westside! He’s not the only noisy dog on the block. So sic the dog police on the biters, not the barkers.
- Ongoing code violations. Is the house a beautiful Victorian, a money pit or eight pages of code violations? All three. Theoretically, the violations don’t need to be remedied unless I want to change it to commercial use. But violations they are.
A few years back, former Springs resident Tom Hudson made a nice living by buying rundown Victorians near downtown and converting them to office use. I’d thought of doing the same thing, but rigid building codes seem to make such conversions uneconomical. I asked Hudson how he managed to get all the variances he needed.
“I have a building permit,” he said with slight smirk. “I just move it from building to building, and I never call for a final. No one has ever noticed.”
As Hudson figured out, you don’t have to fight the law — just fly under the radar. So here’s a quick guide, based on not-for-attribution advice from current and former elected officials, on which laws to ignore, and which to obey.
- Residential burglary. A promising business for the criminally inclined! The cops no longer investigate run-of-the mill burglaries, so unless you leave your card at the scene, including your name, address, phone number, and best time to call, you’re fine.
- Driving drunk. Don’t do it! I know, you only had three beers. Too bad — if you blow .08 you get a DUI, and .05 gets you a DWAI. The cops and courts take drunk driving seriously, so you’d better get a good lawyer and/or a durable road bike.
- Leaving junk cars in your side yard. Depends on the neighborhood — like most code violations, enforcement is complaint-driven. In the Westside, junked cars are street art, but folks in Briargate might see things differently.
- DIY plumbing/electrical work. It’s your house, so you can do what you want, right? Not without a permit pulled by an appropriately licensed tradesman. On the other hand, if you know what you’re doing, go ahead — at worst, you’ll have to pay a pro big bucks to undo your shabby work and fix the original problem.
- DIY home repairs/major renovations. You can get away with extensive interior work, but don’t try building a new addition on the sly. And if you’re an elected official, as one newbie discovered to her sorrow a few months ago, play by the rules. As Tess said in Ocean’s Eleven, “You of all people should know, Terry, in your hotel, there’s always someone watching.”
- Failing to pay city, state or federal taxes. Go ahead and try, but the tax people will get you eventually. Douglas Bruce is a lot smarter than you or me, but they got him, and Al Capone, and Ray Marshall, and millions more.
- Blatantly and defiantly ignore a city code you don’t like. Ask Holger Christiansen, who fought the city and his fellow North End homeowners for years over the too-tall “Great Brick Wall of Cascade Avenue.”
In the end, Holger had to lop off the top two feet of the wall — breakin’ bricks in the hot sun.