At its most elemental level, government — at least the democratic kind set out in America's founding documents — exists to protect the life, liberty and property of its citizens; the pursuit of happiness is more of a rhetorical flourish.
Governments perform this function by passing and enforcing laws, most for obvious reasons. Outlawing murder, theft and rape, for example, is a grand idea because no one wants to live through a real-life sequel to that Purge movie. (Watching it was painful enough, thanks.) But sometimes, government being government, laws are created that don't seem to have any rational basis at all, or, if they do, the text is so thoroughly divorced from the intent as to forfeit any claim to good sense.
Dallas, unsurprisingly, is home to many such laws. Even after the repeal of its infamous ban on bicycle wheelies, its municipal code — which the public is free to browse here — is pockmarked with legislative curiosities. The Observer has sifted through that tome and compiled a list of some — though undoubtedly not all — of Dallas' best bad laws.
1. Guns Are Cool, As Long As They're Not Fake and on an Ice Cream Cart
Texans, with a few very limited exceptions, can carry guns wherever they damn well please. With Texas' passage last year of an open carry law, they don't even have to hide it anymore but can swagger around with pistols on their hips.
The Second Amendment, however, offers no protection for fake firearms like airsoft, BB and paintball guns, which are subject to extensive regulation in Dallas. Some of the rules (e.g., no waving them around and making threats like they are real gun) make a certain amount of sense. Others? Not so much.
For example — given the new open carry law and the fact that it's long been legal to walk around Texas with long guns, as the irascible guns-for-everyone-all-the-time lobbyist Kory Watkins reminded everyone a couple of years ago — the following provision:
SEC. 31-16(d) A person commits an offense if he displays or brandishes a replica firearm in any public place within the city.
That's pretty dumb, but it's still not the dumbest part of the "Replica Firearms" portion of Dallas code. That comes a few lines later:
SEC. 31-16(h) The owner, operator, or person in control of an ice cream vending truck or pushcart commits an offense if a replica firearm is present in or on the truck or pushcart while it is in the city.
These rules were passed a decade ago, sparked by concerns that cops would mistake the fake guns for the real thing and respond by shooting children. Those fears weren't totally unfounded; such incidents happened and were covered aggressively by the media. But it's hard to get past the irony that while it's cool for a paletero to wander the streets or into City Hall with an actual, fully functioning firearm, carrying a similarly shaped hunk of inert plastic is a crime.
2. Hands Off Your Wife, Pal
In another case of legislative overreaction, the Dallas City Council made it illegal for husbands to give massages to their wives.
That doesn't seem to have been the law's intent. The head of the Dallas' vice squad would later testify that the council passed the ordinance at his request as a way to help police crackdown on "lewd acts" by "so-called" masseuses at the city's bath houses and massage parlors. But it doesn't take a lawyer to realize that the legislation is absurdly overbroad, with no exceptions for consenting couples or if no money is changing hands:
SEC. 25A-15. ADMINISTERING MASSAGE TO PERSON OF OPPOSITE SEX.
It shall be unlawful for any person to administer a massage as defined in Section 25A-1 to any person of the opposite sex; provided, however, that this section shall not apply to any person licensed or registered by the State of Texas as a physician, chiropractor, physical therapist, nurse, massage therapist, cosmetologist, or athletic trainer, or as a member of a similar profession subject to state licensing or registration, while performing duties authorized by the state license or registration.
Attorneys for the massage parlors who sued the city over the law in 1961 pointed out as much. The Dallas Morning News had a delightful recap of the trial before Judge Sarah T. Hughes:
Al Ruebel, representing the massage parlors, noted that the act doesn't specify that the massages must be done for pay, or in a parlor.
"Have you ever given your wife a massage, Capt. Gannaway?" he asked the square-jawed detective on cross-examination. Judge Hughes sustained MacMaster's objection to an answer.
She also refused to allow Gannaway to answer questions on whether he had information of Dallas husbands giving their wives massages, or if he has ever arrested any for doing so.
Hughes ruled in the city's favor, concluding that the ban on opposite-sex massage "is not an unreasonable regulation."
A decade later, U.S. District Judge Robert M. Hill disagreed. He, too, steered clear of considering the implications on husband-wife massages but ruled that the ban was nevertheless unconstitutional."Any ordinance which infringes on [Tokyo House massage parlor owner Samuel] Corey's right to do business through a classification based on sex which restricts who Corey may employ in his business contravenes the 14th Amendment of the Constitution of the United States."
And yet the ordinance remains on the books. So while police probably won't kick down your door for giving a massage to your significant other, it's safer to just keep your hands to yourself.
3. When Playing Catch Turns Criminal
SEC. 43-17. PLAYING BALL, THROWING STONES, ETC., IN STREETS.
No person shall play at a game of ball, practice at passing a ball, throw stones, use a slingshot or sling, or discharge gravel, marbles, shot or any other object or anything, out of a gravel shooter, blow gun or other device of like kind or character along, across or upon any highway, street or alley in the city.
Damn straight. Get off my lawn while you're at it.
4. The Mythical Healing Waters of Reverchon Park Are Not For Sale
Reverchon Park, with its winding stone stairways and quiet, out-of-the way nooks, would be one of Dallas' best public spaces even if it wasn't home to an artesian spring with what's been described as "mythical healing powers." The fact that it is home to such a water source, the renowned Gill Well, only makes it better.
Now, you're probably thinking "Mythical healing properties?!? That'd sell at Whole Foods for $10 a bottle!" But before you get too excited know that a) the well is no longer operational; and b) profiting off Gill Well water is illegal — unless, of course, the city gets a cut:
SEC. 19-36. GILL WELL - GENERALLY.
It shall be unlawful for any person to traffic in or sell any of the mineral water known as Gill Well water save and except such person as may exercise such right under a contract with the city.
The term “traffic in” Gill Well water shall mean any person deriving a compensation from the business of delivering or soliciting orders for or selling Gill Well water, or who may make a livelihood out of delivery or soliciting orders, or the sale of same.
5. No Cruising
Believe it or not, a quarter century ago the big problem facing the West End was not irrelevance but overrelevance. Specifically, it was overrun with teenagers — almost certainly blood relatives of those wretched imps polluting Dallas streets with their incessant ball-throwing — who would spend weekend nights endlessly circling the neighborhood in their cars, taking in the teeming sidewalks. "Cruising," the kids called it.
The resulting traffic problem so choked the streets of downtown that the Dallas City Council made it a crime to "operate a motor vehicle ... so as to pass the same traffic control point within a no cruising zone three times within any two-hour period" at night in the West End and Deep Ellum.
The measure has been remarkably effective. Just look at the West End today. Not counting El Centro and charter school kids, you'll be hard-pressed to find a teenager anywhere.
6. No Booby Traps
SEC. 31-2. SETTING OF BOOBY-TRAPS.
(a) A person commits an offense if he installs upon premises, a trap or device of any kind, designed to do bodily harm to a person entering into or upon the premises.
(b) It is a defense to prosecution under this section that the device is a tear gas device installed on a safe, vault, cabinet, or vending machine, which is activated only when the equipment is wrongfully opened.
Banning booby traps may seem reasonable on its face, but think about it: Without booby traps, Macauley Culkin would almost certainly be dead by now. In addition, Dallas' law runs contrary to the Texas statute allowing property owners to use force against trespassers, which specifically allows "the use of a device to protect land or tangible, movable property." Finally, what sort of a crisis would have impelled Dallas officials into concocting legislation against booby traps?
7. Colds and Library Books Don't Mix
Say you have a cold. Nothing major, just a cough, maybe a low-grade fever. Say you also have a library book that's almost overdue. Certainly, no harm can come from dashing off and dropping it in the return slot, right?
Wrong. For starters, unless you properly disinfect the book, it may become a vector for your illness, infecting anyone who comes into contact with the book with a mildly irritating head cold. Two, you are breaking the law. Ignorance is no excuse, since the offense is spelled out very clearly in Section 24-5 of Dallas' municipal code, which reads:
SEC. 24-5. BOOKS FROM HOUSES WHERE THERE IS CONTAGIOUS DISEASE - GENERALLY.
Every person in any house where there is a contagious or infectious disease shall deliver to the director of public health, at such house, any book, periodical or publication that he may have which belongs to the public library. The director of public health shall at once cause such book, periodical or publication to be disinfected and returned to the public library.
Certainly no one wants a tuberculosis-covered volume freely circulating in Dallas, but the language — "contagious disease" encompasses a lot — could perhaps be more specific.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the Observer's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Dallas's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
8. Assholes Not Allowed
For a whole host of reasons, the iron-clad First Amendment right to say dickish things chief among them, being an asshole is not illegal. Unless, that is, you happen to find yourself in a Dallas park at which point you'd likely run afoul of Section 32-4:
SEC. 32-4. ABUSIVE, OBSCENE, ETC., LANGUAGE OR ACTS.
No person shall use or speak any threatening, abusive, insulting or indecent language in any of the public parks, and no person shall commit, in any such parks any obscene, lewd or indecent act or create any nuisance.
"Insulting or indecent language" is a pretty low bar.
9. "Oh, Crap" — Everyone in Dallas
SEC. 32-56. CREATING FILTH.
It shall be unlawful to cause in any manner any filth to be created in or about the waters of Elm Fork, or to do any act in or about the waters or along the banks of the waters or on the watersheds of the waters that is likely to pollute the waters or render them unwholesome for domestic use or that is likely to affect the water so as to endanger the lives and health of the inhabitants of the city.