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A bill in Texas could make it a crime to miss parent-teacher conferences. In New York, crossing the street with your iPod on could ring in a $100 penalty if legislation is approved. And partiers in New Hampshire beware: Releasing a balloon into the air could blow up into a $250 fine for violating the state’s littering law. As states wrap up their legislative sessions, a number of bizarre bills may be on the way to becoming laws � and some legal experts fear they are leading to overcriminalization. “The criminal law has become an all-purpose tool for legislators to signal that they are serious about whatever the social problem of the month is, and that’s really a dangerous tendency,” said Gene Healy, senior editor at the Cato Institute, a Washington think thank, and author of Go Directly to Jail: The Criminalization of Almost Everything. “The criminal law is the society’s most powerful moral sanction and it ought to be reserved for those sorts of really dangerous and blameworthy offenses that you’re willing to lock people up for,” Healy said. While it is difficult to put a number on the total number of criminal offenses, there are more than 4,000 on the federal level alone, Healy said. ‘Carnal knowledge’ bill Whether they call for a criminal charge or not, some unusual bills don’t survive. A bill that died in Virginia in February attempted to change the definition of misdemeanor adultery from sexual intercourse outside a marriage to having “carnal knowledge.” The bill defines carnal knowledge as a range of sexual activities, including oral sex. In 2004, a bill that aimed to outlaw so-called low-rise jeans in Louisiana was rejected, as was a similar proposal in Virginia in 2005, which would have charged violators $50 for deliberately showing their underwear. A proposal introduced in California in February that could have sent parents to jail for spanking their young children did not survive in its original form. But other quirky bills make their way onto the books. In Illinois, a bill signed into law in January cracks down on candidates who adopt Irish names to win elections by requiring them to identify their previous names on the ballot. Also in Illinois, a law went into effect this year that prohibits bands from using classic bands’ names unless at least one of the original members is in the new band. And in Arkansas, a new law prohibits protests within 300 feet of a funeral during the service, as well as one hour before or after. Bill Moffitt of Moffitt & Brodnax in Reston, Va., a past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the number of crimes has been increasing at the state and federal level, and many of these crimes are only crimes as a result of the fears the post-Sept. 11, 2001, world has engendered. “People are frightened and scared, and when people are scared part of the reaction is to criminalize everything,” Moffitt said. “The question is: Can we incarcerate ourselves out of fear? And we’re not going to be able to do that. We can’t lock up everyone; we already have too many people in prison.” While legislators sometimes have knee-jerk reactions, many new laws are worthwhile, said Joshua Marquis, the district attorney in Clatsop County, Ore., and past president of the Oregon District Attorneys Association. “Sometimes these are legislators’ responses to people’s discontent that there is a gap in the law,” he said, pointing out district attorneys also have a lot of discretion in their positions. “In most states, DAs can treat a crime as a noncriminal violation.”

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