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Kalamazoo purges some old, odd laws

Clyde Robinson, Kalamazoo City Attorney, stands behind the counter at the City Attorney's Office in Kalamazoo City Hall. His hands are resting on the old Kalamazoo ordinances book.
Leona Larson
Kalamazoo City Attorney Clyde Robinson with an old code book. Robinson said the City Charter requires the publication once every two years of a pamphlet of all ordinance amendments over the two years and publication of code book once every 10 years of all ordinance changes. He also said that "as a matter of course the city Code of Ordinances is updated at least once a year (through the issuance of replacement pages) and occasionally more often."

Old Kalamazoo laws against impersonating a meter reader or making obscene gestures at the bus station are going away.

Until July, swearing and spitting in public was illegal in Kalamazoo. So was impersonating a meter reader, palm-reading, and removing old newspapers that didn’t belong to you.

Last month these laws, and others, were purged in a routine review of Kalamazoo’s criminal code. But it’s likely Kalamazoo residents didn’t know they were illegal in the first place.

Kalamazoo City Attorney Clyde Robinson said the laws purged were rarely enforced. In fact, Robinson said none of the laws mentioned in this story were prosecuted during his 14-year tenure with the city and, to his knowledge, Kalamazoo never had a scourge of meter-reader impostors or people gesturing obscenely at the transit center. Rather, he said many ordinances were likely preemptive, mirrored state laws, and may have been directly copied from other cities.

“At least in the law, plagiarism is a form of flattery,” said Robinson.

He said agencies publicize laws from across the country so other jurisdictions can lift them, often word-for-word. Kalamazoo’s ban on commercial palm reading and phrenology is a likely example of a copied law. Phrenology is the pseudoscience of feeling the bumps on a person’s head to predict their character.

“I don't know if it was a real problem,” Robinson said. “That's one of those that appears in a lot of ordinances. I think there was a concern that that practice bordered on people taking advantage of people.”

Some laws are written to address a particular problem at a particular time. Like the city’s first law, around 1883.

“I'm given to understand that the first city ordinance was an ordinance prohibiting swine and pigs to run at large on city streets, so that was a problem,” Robinson said.

Robinson speculated that the law to prevent people from stealing unwanted newspapers was likely enacted to protect paper drives. Paper and scrap recycling drives were part of World War II war efforts. Boy Scouts used paper drives to raise money in the 1950s and 1960s.

Robinson said it’s not clear if the unsanitary habit of spitting in public ever caused a crisis in Kalamazoo, but there were efforts to contain spitting indoors.

“There’s some pictures, probably goes back to the 19th century, where courtrooms actually had a spittoon in the corner, so individuals, lawyers and others who were in the court, could use that,” Robinson said, “rather than just spitting on the floor.”

Leona has worked as a journalist for most of her life - in radio, print, television and as journalism instructor. She has a background in consumer news, special projects and investigative reporting.