Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Who Was That Masked Man (In Handcuffs)?

During the ongoing "occupation" of Wall Street by protestors, police have unearthed—and enforced—an obscure state law which prohibits loitering in a public place while wearing a mask or disguise. Yesterday's Wall Street Journal reported that, since the start of the protest on September 17, at least five of the demonstrators who have been arrested were issued a summons for violating the strange old statute, which has been on the books since 1845.

The protest has roots with the online collective Anonymous, whose members often don Britain's iconic Guy Fawkes mask (as seen in the 2006 film adaptation of the graphic novel V for Vendetta) during public demonstrations. (Notable past targets of the group include the Church of Scientology in 2008, and more recently the San Francisco BART system, in response to transit officials' jamming of subway cell phone service to prevent a growing demonstration in the city.) But it wasn't only the Guy Fawkes impersonators who were corralled by the NYPD; the WSJ interviewed one protestor who was detained for wearing just a bandanna over his face.

So what does this state law say, exactly? Like most newspapers and popular media outlets, the WSJ doesn’t provide a Bluebook-ready citation. But the quoted language is enough to search the state code in either LexisNexis, Westlaw, or the free version at the NYS Legislature.

RESEARCH CHALLENGE: Can you track it down without peeking at the rest of this entry?

(We'll wait.)

OK, we’re back. If you took our test, we hope you found N.Y. Penal Law § 240.35, which states: "A person is guilty of loitering when he [...] [b]eing masked or in any manner disguised by unusual or unnatural attire or facial alteration, loiters, remains or congregates in a public place with other persons so masked or disguised, or knowingly permits or aids persons so masked or disguised to congregate in a public place; except that such conduct is not unlawful when it occurs in connection with a masquerade party or like entertainment if, when such entertainment is held in a city which has promulgated regulations in connection with such affairs, permission is first obtained from the police or other appropriate authorities.”

The WSJ article provides a bit of historical background on this little-known section of the New York penal code, which we sure hope won't ruin anybody's Halloween plans. If you read about interesting statutes or cases in the news and have trouble tracking down the original sources, be sure to Ask a Librarian for help.