Snake-Mailing Rules Revisited

Aug. 18th, 2017 12:20 pm
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Posted by Kevin

Thanks to the many readers who responded to my assertion in Assorted Stupidity #103 that under U.S. Postal Service rules, “it is illegal to mail snakes, and it is illegal to mail poisonous reptiles, so poisonous snakes are doubly unmailable. Same for all poisonous insects, except scorpions under limited circumstances.” People identified at least three problems with this.

First, Andrew B. objected to the terms “unmailable” (the one I used) and “nonmailable” (which the USPS actually uses). “Snakes patently ARE mailable,” he pointed out very reasonably, “otherwise we wouldn’t be reading about someone finding them in the mail.” And this is true—if “mailable” means “can physically be sent by mail,” then of course snakes are mailable, even if it may be a little tricky to get one into an envelope.

The term probably would still apply in this way to really ginormous snakes like anacondas and pythons, which can weigh a few hundred pounds, at least assuming that the USPS maximum weight limit (70 pounds) is more or less the maximum the system could physically handle. Much bigger things can be shipped, of course—like this 6,700-pound lathe that Business Insider found on Amazon. It costs $26,000, but shipping’s free (if you’re a member of Amazon Prime, at least). But we’re not talking about shipping here, we’re talking about mailing. So it is fair to say that most snakes, at least, would indeed be “mailable,” if that’s what “mailable” meant.

But it isn’t. The postal rules and relevant federal statutes use “mailable” to mean “can legally be sent by mail,” and in fact, that’s the only sense in which the Oxford English Dictionary uses the word—it defines “mailable” as “acceptable for conveyance by post.” The OED describes this as “North American” English, and cites (among other things) an 1845 U.S. federal statute, but what it gives as the UK equivalent, “postable,” is defined the same way. In fact, this Google Ngram suggests that Congress is mostly responsible for the word to begin with, which would bolster the conclusion that “mailable” means only that something “can be legally mailed”:

It also seems to confirm that “unmailable” and “nonmailable” are equally acceptable. Therefore, I stand by the phrase “snakes are … unmailable.”

Second, several people pointed out that there’s a difference between “poisonous” and “venomous.” While the OED treats them pretty much interchangeably, scientists don’t—”poison” is ingested or absorbed through the skin, but “venom” is injected with fangs or spikes or something like that. There are lots of venomous snakes, but very few poisonous ones. To be clear, though, Rule 525.3 says: “All snakes, turtles, and poisonous reptiles are nonmailable.” So I wasn’t wrong to say that “poisonous snakes are doubly unmailable,” because there are some poisonous snakes and those are both (1) snakes and (2) poisonous reptiles. Venomous snakes would just be singly unmailable. The fact that I may have forgotten about this distinction is therefore, according to me, irrelevant.

But more importantly, it doesn’t look like the postal rules were written by scientists, because the rules don’t use the word “venomous” at all. It seems very unlikely that it’s okay to mail Gila monsters, for example, just because they’re venomous reptiles that aren’t snakes. So I think we have to conclude that the postal rules use “poisonous” to mean the same thing as “venomous,” no matter how much educated people like us may recoil at that barbarism.

Thirdsome were equally horrified at the phrase, “all poisonous insects, except scorpions . . . .” And rightly so (even setting aside the poisonous/venomous issue), because scorpions aren’t insects, they’re arachnids. Here I was paraphrasing again, because Rule 525.4 actually says: “All poisonous insects and all spiders, except scorpions . . . .” That’s wrong in a different way, because scorpions aren’t spiders, either—both are arachnids—but I managed to make it worse. So I will take responsibility for that one.

On the other hand, I only brought up scorpions in the first place so I could refer to the (limited) circumstances under which live scorpions are in fact mailable and, more importantly, mention that I wrote a book in which this critically important legal rule is mentioned along with so many others. And I think we can all agree I accomplished that goal. And that I am now doing it again.

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Posted by Kevin

While people try to convince the President of the United States that Nazis and racists are, you know, bad, let’s not forget that the feds have been spread pretty thin trying to keep track of all the suspicious groups out there. Among them, of course, is that “loosely organized non-traditional hybrid gang subset” known to the federal government as the Juggalos.

As you may recall because I’ve mentioned it umpteen times, the DOJ used that memorable phrase to describe Juggalos—fans of the hip-hop duo Insane Clown Posse—in its 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment. ICP and certain Juggalos sued the DOJ and FBI in 2012, alleging that after the assessment was released, they were harassed by police, denied employment, and harmed in various other ways by the “gang” description. A federal district court dismissed for lack of standing, but in 2015, the Sixth Circuit reversed, saying they had alleged enough to go forward. But in September 2016, the district court dismissed again.

This time the court held the claim didn’t satisfy the Administrative Procedure Act, which governs legal actions that challenge federal agencies’ decisions. The decision has to be a “final agency action,” which in this case meant it had to (1) be final and (2) “cause legal consequences.” This one didn’t “cause legal consequences,” the court held, because everything the Juggalos alleged was done to them by some third party, not directly by the agencies themselves. They could have sued the FBI if they’d been arrested by FBI agents, apparently, but because the alleged hassling was done by state or local officials, the Juggalos were out of luck.

But that sounds an awful lot like the reason the court dismissed the first time, namely that the Juggalos hadn’t alleged Article III standing because their injuries resulted from “independent actions by third parties who are not currently before the court.” The Sixth Circuit disagreed with that, noting that “it is still possible to motivate harmful conduct without giving a direct order to engage in said conduct. The Juggalos allege that the injurious third-party actions were motivated by the DOJ gang designation,” and at least for Article III purposes, that was enough. On remand, though, the district court then held that even if it is enough for Article III, the very same causation argument isn’t enough for the APA. Okay, they can sue in federal court, he basically held, they just can’t win.

That isn’t necessarily wrong, because the Article III causation standard is pretty easy to satisfy, and so it’s possible to meet that standard but still come up short on the legal claim itself. But it’s interesting that the district court didn’t try to make this distinction—in fact, it didn’t mention the Sixth Circuit’s decision at all, instead relying on a Fourth Circuit case. In any event, the Juggalos have appealed again, so they haven’t given up on legal action.

They have decided to try something more direct, though—a march on Washington.

On September 16, 2017—just 33 days from now, as I write this, according to the Juggalo March on Washington Countdown Clock—a loosely organized non-traditional group of music fans will converge on the nation’s capital to protest the “gang” designation. They will meet at the Lincoln Memorial, hear some speeches, then march down to the Washington Monument and back. Will some or all of them detour north a bit to march around the White House? I sure hope so, but it’s not on the agenda at the moment.

Those not prepared to follow the Code should stay home

There will then be a free concert featuring (so far) 25 bands including not just ICP but also (among others) Big Hoodoo, Glasses Malone, Kung Fu Vampire, Zug Izland, and, for a reason that I’m sure will later be explained to the country’s full satisfaction, Vanilla Ice.

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Posted by Kevin

I’d like to ask that in the future, reporters covering a story like this one—and by that I mean any story in which one player of a ridiculous board or card game has tried to murder another one—please investigate fully enough to determine what exactly triggered the dispute.

On second thought, don’t do that. That would prevent me from speculating that the cause was something truly nonsensical, when it’s usually something pretty mundane. Forget what I said before.

This has been a dilemma of mine for a while now. For example, I desperately wanted to know exactly how it came to be that, as the Tampa Tribune reported in 2007, somebody got stabbed while he was playing Yahtzee. Was it an argument over the well-known discrepancy between the 1956 and 1961 rules as to whether a Yahtzee could be deployed as a “joker” in the upper section of the scorecard? Probably not, but if the report had given the actual reason, I would not have come up with that joke, which I like enough that I’ve probably used it four or five times now. See, e.g., GRTK #2 (Again): Yahtzee Dispute” (Sept. 29, 2011). So it’s good that I didn’t know. At least if you like that joke.

Similarly, in “GRTK #6: Messed With Your Dungeons & Dragons Character” (Aug. 28, 2009), the report did say that the suspect went after the Dungeon Master with a hammer because he “didn’t like what [the DM] was doing to [his] character.” I would very much like to know just how that character died, but again, it’s probably better to be able to speculate that a level 60 paladin lost his last hit point because a kobold bit him in the ankle, or something. See alsoGRTK #17 & 17.1 (beer pong); #19 (Monopoly); #34 (chess); cf. #57 (excluded from Monopoly tournament for “unsportsmanlike conduct” the previous year). So, yeah, don’t look into it too closely, I guess.

I’m a little handicapped when it comes to this particular story, because I’ve actually never played Magic: the Gathering. (These guys have.) I do of course know that it is a trading-card game with a D&D-type theme in which two or more players engage in a battle acting as powerful wizards, although not so powerful that they can avoid giving up their lunch money to ogres they encounter from time to time. Like many games, it has complicated rules, winners, and losers, and this can easily cause volatile situations in which one player may snap and whack another with a rubber mallet before stabbing him several times in the neck.

It happens.

The alleged assailant, or the game’s equivalent of a hobbit—my notes aren’t clear

It happened in Minnesota, at least, on the night of July 27/28. According to the St. Cloud Times, 31-year-old Elija Dale Creech called 911 to report that he had stabbed a guy. Officers found a 20-year-old man at the scene with knife wounds to the face and neck. “Investigators were told that Creech and the victim had argued over playing a card game called ‘Magic the Gathering,’ and that the argument led to Creech hitting the man in the face with a rubber mallet and stabbing him seven times.” Happily, the victim’s wounds were not life-threatening.

Again, I have mixed emotions about the phrase “argued over playing a card game called ‘Magic the Gathering.'” On the one hand, I want somebody to go ask the victim exactly what triggered the violence. Was it simple frustration over a loss? Or was it a rule dispute? The full set of rules, at least, is ridiculously complicated—like, Code of Federal Regulations complicated. Any set of rules like that is going to cause arguments, and sooner or later somebody’s going to get malleted. But on the other hand, maybe they were arguing about something completely unrelated, and that’s no fun. So on balance, I guess I don’t want these questions asked.

I would prefer to think, for example, that something like this happened:

Plague Spores reads, “Destroy target nonblack creature and target land. They can’t be regenerated.” Suppose the same animated land is chosen both as the nonblack creature and as the land, and the color of the creature land is changed to black before Plague Spores resolves. Plagues Spores isn’t countered because the black creature land is still a legal target for the “target land” part of the spell. The “destroy target nonblack creature” part of the spell won’t affect that permanent, but the “destroy target land” part of the spell will still destroy it. It can’t be regenerated.

Or perhaps this:

Svogthos, the Restless Tomb, is on the battlefield. An effect that says “Until end of turn, target land becomes a 3/3 creature that’s still a land” is applied to it (layers 4 and 7b). An effect that says “Target creature gets +1/+1 until end of turn” is applied to it (layer 7c), making it a 4/4 land creature. Then while you have ten creature cards in your graveyard, you activate Svogthos’s ability: “Until end of turn, Svogthos, the Restless Tomb becomes a black and green Plant Zombie creature with ‘This creature’s power and toughness are each equal to the number of creature cards in your graveyard.’ It’s still a land.” (layers 4, 5, and 7b). It becomes an 11/11 land creature. If a creature card enters or leaves your graveyard, Svogthos’s power and toughness will be modified accordingly. If the first effect is applied to it again, it will become a 4/4 land creature again.

Those are examples from the full set of game rules, giving you an idea of the kind of difficult questions that might arise. In a tournament situation, a judge could resolve the dispute, and security wizards would be standing by to cast the Calm Dweebs spell if things get out of hand. But if Svogthos, the Restless Tomb, shows up late one night and what was once a friendly game starts to deteriorate, well, you can see how it could get ugly.

Especially since Mr. Creech, it turns out, has a criminal record. According to the report, he was convicted in 2013 for “possession of an explosive with intent,” and it doesn’t say what his intent was but it probably wasn’t good. This history, plus what the report cryptically calls “information from the overnight investigation,” led to the summoning of a Hazmat Team (part of the fire department, not the game) and the obtaining of a search warrant. No hazardous materials were found, the report says, though I doubt they tested for Plague Spores.

For future reference, neither stabbing nor the use of a rubber mallet are expressly prohibited by MTG tournament rules, but would likely be found to violate Rule 5.4 (Unsporting Conduct), which precludes “acting belligerently toward” tournament officials, players, or spectators. Please conduct yourselves accordingly.

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Posted by Kevin

In many cases of Driving Something Unusual While Intoxicated, the legal issue is whether the thing driven is a “vehicle” or “motor vehicle” under state law. Sometimes it’s a thing that’s usually not motorized (picnic tables, beer coolers, bar stools), sometimes it’s usually not operated on a street (Zambonis, inner tubes), and sometimes it’s a horse. That’s not the issue here, though, because the machine pictured above is, apparently, a real motorized vehicle designed for use by adult human beings on actual public streets. That is, it’s “unusual” only because of what’s attached to it. But that does make it unusual, and the driver was intoxicated, so I decree it to be within the bounds of DSUWI.

As you may have noticed, the picture shows two large metal shafts, said to be lampposts, strapped to the roof of what experts believe is a Renault Twingo. Specifically, it appears to be a Twingo I, made in France at some point between 1993 and 2007. According to Wikipedia, the Twingo I originally had a one-liter engine (!) that could generate up to 60 horsepower, although later models were souped-up to a full 75. It had a wheelbase of 2,345 millimeters, was just 1,420 mm high, and looks like it could be crushed by a small suitcase. And yet someone in Lelystad, the Netherlands, tried to use one as shown above.

“What exactly the man was planning to do with the lampposts is unclear,” according to the report, and indeed, much remains unclear about the incident last Tuesday. Police believe the lampposts were stolen from the nearby town of Almere. The man must have had help stealing and mounting the things, but no one was with him in the car. And this may shock you, but he had been drinking. Or, at least, police claimed they smelled alcohol and the man refused to take a breath test.

I was also curious as to why the man may have believed no one would notice him, since I doubted that somebody drunk enough to believe that was possible would even be able to drive. As I’m sure you know, the quickest way between Almere and Lelystad is to take the A6. That’s usually about a 30-minute drive. But even in the middle of the night, when I assume this happened, there might be significant traffic on that road. This report says he was stopped on the A6, but others say it was on the Oostvaardersdijk:

Oostvaardersdijk on the Markermeer

That trip would take twice as long, but maybe there’s less traffic?

Based on this more recent report, though, it may be that our hero did try to take the A6 but his car broke down. Because according to the report, somebody came along and helpfully gave him a tow.

Yeah, that’s much safer (image: Ben Rademaker)

Here’s what the report says about it, as Google translated it from the original Dutch:

This man [the good Samaritan] had nothing to do with the lantern transport. “He saw that the Twingo was in a dangerous place on the A6 with his special cargo and took him towed and left behind in a parking lot at the Oostvaardersdijk. There the agents saw the car with the masts on the roof,” said a spokesman for the police [of] Flevoland ….

Again, questions remain. The most obvious being: What are the odds this guy would be rescued by someone in a car even more embarrassing than his own?

The report says that’s a “Citroën 2 Chevaux,” and if this is correct then that car is not less than 27 years old and has an engine that delivers, at most, 29 horsepower. Less than half the power of a Twingo! How does a car like that tow anything, much less a fully loaded lantern transport? And regardless of the horsepower, how could towing have been safer than leaving it or just pushing it off the road? Hope the guy doesn’t pass out while you’re towing him, because good luck coming to a stop without getting your clown car impaled by a lamppost.

The more recent report did provide a little more detail on the charges against the lamppost-stealer. Not only was he allegedly intoxicated and in possession of stolen property, he didn’t have insurance, his license was expired, and of course, “cargo may not be transported in this way.” More charges may be pending. (Possibly my favorite Google translation here: the suspect “is still enclosed for research.”)

Still nothing on the details of the theft, or what his motive might have been. Though we do get this (again via Google Translate):

The Twingo driver is a 28-year-old resident of Almere. Where the man has the lampposts is not known yet. No reports have been reported. He came from Lelystad. “We have not seen this before. You also wonder what to do with such a booty. Sell ​​like old iron?”

I think that means the plan was probably to cut up the poles and sell them for scrap, although it would’ve been a lot easier to cut them up before moving them. That might have attracted attention, though.

The case immediately made me think of the Great Totem Pole Caper of 2011, although that guy at least had the sense to use a truck to move his booty.


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