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Keep That Slingshot Where I Can See It and Other Oldies : Law: A stroll through dusty code books reveals some alarming do's and don'ts. A word of advice: Don't get caught riding your horse on the sidewalk.

July 22, 1993|PANCHO DOLL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When a group led by Oxnard churchgoers recently took issue with the location of an adult business, they sought relief in the book that offered the most durable satisfaction available--the Municipal Code.

The concerned citizens formed a committee and submitted new guidelines that lawmakers are expected to adopt in some form later this year.

The impulse to regulate is not new. Local interest groups and lawmakers have been writing laws as long as Ventura County has had cities.

Some offered forward-looking solutions to longstanding problems, others were shortsighted reactions to temporary nuisances, but all of them remain laws until someone takes them off the books.

Last month the city of Ventura repealed a law barring animal-drawn vehicles from downtown during evening rush hour. Still on the books are laws against riding horses on the sidewalk and spitting on public streets.

Ojai outlaws carrying a concealed slingshot and Oxnard has a ban on male poultry. Like ancient guacamole turning brown and toxic in the back of the refrigerator, these legal leftovers linger in the codified ordinances of the county's older cities. (The east county's codes may have to wait a quarter of a century to appear fusty and stale.)

"We know these laws are on the books," said Michael Dougherty, chief assistant attorney for Ventura. "The reason they are still there is nobody has enough time to take them all off."

Given a broader context, cities in Ventura County look like hotbeds of legal modernity. In her book, "You Can't Eat Peanuts in Church and Other Little Known Laws," Barbara Seuling recounts some statutes and ordinances that, though hard to believe, were once the law.

A Kentucky statute read that no female shall appear in a bathing suit on any state highway unless she is escorted by at least two officers or unless she is armed with a club.

The statute goes on to say that females under 90 pounds or over 200 pounds are exempted. It concludes: "The provisions of this statute shall not apply to female horses."

Nevada prohibited driving camels along its main highways.

Setting fire to a mule was expressly outlawed in Maine.

One town in Kansas, perhaps in response to an earlier spate of lawyer bashing, forbade the practice of throwing knives at anyone wearing a striped suit.

A genuine lawyer, this one Ventura County Counsel James McBride, explained the care and maintenance of local lawbooks. He said that the departments responsible for enforcing a particular code section are generally responsible for keeping it current.

"As situations change, they usually submit the laws to the board for amendment," McBride explained. "However, there are laws that no departments regularly deal with, so nothing much happens to them."

Public Morals

The portion of code books regulating public morals is a good example of a category that gets little exercise. Nearly every code book has a morals section that, in these more liberal times, amounts to a repository of quaint social customs.

Section 6132 of the Ventura City Code prohibits the use of vulgar language within hearing of women and children.

Unfortunately, police don't keep an index of infractions by type, so there is no practical way to determine if anyone has been cited since the law was adopted in 1912.

Records at the city clerk's office show that the indecent-language law was part of an early legislative package. Also included in the 1912 morals agenda was a law that made it illegal to race horses on public streets.

Santa Paula has a similar obscene-language law whose origin is a puzzle.

Section 8.16.10 of the Santa Paula Municipal Code says, "No person while on the premises of any drive-in restaurant shall use loud or vociferous language or obscene, vulgar or indecent language or swear, or curse or yell or shriek in a manner calculated to disturb any person or persons present at such place."

City administrators can't determine when the law was written. Historians can't guess what spawned the regulation. A lawyer with 30 years of practice in Santa Paula can recall no application of the indecent-language law and admits that he has never heard of it.

Nevertheless, the next time you're fumbling for change at the drive-up window and the idiot behind you honks, keep your comments polite.

It's still the law.

Bingo is regulated under the morals chapter of most municipal code books, which puts churches and charitable organizations in the same regulatory neighborhood as disorderly conduct and dance halls.

It's not so much that bingo is in a tough neighborhood, it's in a rich neighborhood. Based on projections of gross receipts in Oxnard, which requires monthly reports, bingo does well over $10 million countywide.

"Bingo is competitive," said Laurie Kelley, a clerk in the Ventura business license office. "The different clubs watch each other closely."

Far from being tired and neglected, the bingo codes get a lot of attention, according to Kelley. But they may seem anachronistic, at least to the bingo non-cognoscenti.

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