Illustration by Sam Woolley.

Welcome back to Ask a Lawyer, where I, a lawyer, respond to your questions. Got a vexing legal issue? Send it over. Today, we’re tackling some of the weirdest emails we’ve gotten since the last Lightning Round, all at once. Let’s go.

If I wore a windbreaker that said FBI or ATF on the back of it, would that be a crime? Do you have to actually present yourself as law enforcement to be impersonating law enforcement, or is the appearance enough? A sexy cop outfit on Halloween is obviously not a real cop, but what’s the actual line between fashion and impersonation?

Feel free to reword the question how you want. Also, don’t use my name. Use “Dean.” You can only publish this if you use “Dean.”

- “Dean”

Dean, if that’s your real name, the primary federal law on this topic makes it illegal to (a) pretend to be a federal agent or (b) demand something of value while pretending to do so. However, Justice Department guidance on this topic says that you shouldn’t be prosecuted if you don’t commit an “overt act” in keeping with your Fox Mulder pretense (who, it turns out, is not a real agent in the first place). In other words, if you’re not using your impersonation to get someone to do something for you outside of the situation, then the feds don’t care. There are state laws that are similar regarding law enforcement, too.

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What does this mean? Your dreams of dressing up as Sexy USDA Agent next Halloween are fine as long as you don’t pretend yourself into any actual unwanted inspections. The only crime you’re committing is a crime of fashion. (If you’ll excuse me now, I have to go hang dry my Female Body Inspector t-shirt for “work” later today.)


I am involved in my university student government. We have a set of rules in place about selling food at group events. I think these rules exist because of liability issues, however they do allow you to give out food for free. How much of this is them wanting their caterers to get more money and how much is legit? Also, do you gain a certain extra level of liability by selling food as opposed to giving it away?

College dining services in the US take in $9 billion a year, according to the Wall Street Journal. That’s about the annual GDP of the Republic of Congo, which tells you two things: There’s a gigantic market for feeding college students, and the Republic of Congo has a much much way much higher GDP than I thought.

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Does your university want cash to go to its caterers instead of you? I have no idea. That’s between your chancellor and the fat manila envelope—unmarked except for the Aramark logo—that was discreetly slipped into his or her briefcase at a brunch meeting featuring bowls of generic Froot Loops from the student commons cereal bar.

Does food have a higher level of liability when it’s paid for rather than free? Actually, many states and the federal government provide good samaritan immunity to non-profit organizations that receive donated food or provide free food. This is usually geared towards food banks or soup kitchens, though, so likely wouldn’t apply to you. In most cases, however—free or paid—you’d be liable for any negligence in your handling of the food.

If you wanted to get really crafty, you could take a page from the oldest profession and charge for your time only; whatever food gets eaten during that hour happens only between consenting adults and student governments.


Here in CA, if you text or use a phone (sans the hands-free option) while driving, you will receive a fine. Do you think there would be a loop hole to this if you were in a Tesla Model S with the auto pilot feature engaged? Technically the auto pilot is driving and therefore you are not distracted by your device.

Of course you’re someone from California asking if you can text with your phone in your hands while your Tesla is on autopilot, presumably while waiting for an Amazon drone to drop a case of Soylent and a tub of hubris through your panoramic roof.

There’s no loophole. You’re not going to see laws allowing you to do so for a long time—expect the requirements to be that drivers of autonomous vehicles need to be available for immediate control of a vehicle, including having all existing wireless device laws apply. You’re the driver. Keep your hands off the phone—it’ll give you a more mindful crawl up the 101 to your micro-apartment in SOMA.


I was in Vegas last week and on the final day of our stay, my friend had the brilliant idea of renting our group some rascal scooters from the front desk. They’re only $50 for the day with insurance and you can swap them out at many of the casinos on the strip if/when they die because it’s done by an outside company that works with the different hotels. And these things cruise....a little faster than the ones at Walmart anyhow.

After a couple days of walking, everyone’s feet hurt so this seemed like a no-brainer. Being a Wisconsinite, I asked the incumbent question: “Whats the OWI [Operating While Impaired] policy with these things?” The man didn’t know and had never been asked, which I found hard to believe. With that ambiguity, we decided we were good to go. So we spent the rest of the night zipping around and (allegedly) enjoying cocktails, getting to see more of the strip than we had been able to the previous 2 days and without police interaction. Though there were some minor incidents—our female friends each bumped into someone but nothing serious. Was that illegal?

First things first—it’s “DUI” in Nevada, not “OWI.” According to Nevada’s DUI Prosecution Manual (because such a thing exists), any device operated in whole or in part by a motor would be included in the definition of a vehicle. This means that if you meet the BAC (blood-alcohol concentration) level and were driving your “vehicles” on premises to which the public has access (that’s straight from the statute), you could have been hit with a DUI.

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Of course, that’s not taking into account a long-standing federal DUI exclusion on the cheeky but assuredly polite carousing of a slow-moving swarm of Cheddarheads heck-bent on taking in all the sights that Vegas has to offer before hitting the Chili’s Too at the airport on the way out.


This is a hypothetical scenario, which doesn’t mean it’s secretly about me, but rather that I thought of it and haven’t fully fleshed it out, so there may be an obvious answer I’m missing.

Let’s say a drug dealer keeps a ledger of all his clients and transactions, but he writes each of his customers’ names in code. However, let’s say the code is really easy to crack, so instead of BARRY it’s CBSSZ, and ADAM is now BEBN, and there’s no key, it’s just pretty obvious that they just shifted a letter. If the police get ahold of the ledger, and had no other evidence against Barry or Adam, would an encrypted name be sufficient evidence to use against either? Like, could you tell a jury “the ledger says BEBN, but it clearly means Adam” and have that count as actual evidence, even if you technically can’t prove that the code actually is that simple?

Let’s delve into this hypothetical scenario, where we have a mastermind criminal that’s apparently done all of his cipher research by reading up on Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown. It would be up to the prosecution to establish to the court how this code worked. In your case, it’s not too difficult, probably by demonstrating a Little Orphan Annie decoder ring in front of the jury. In a more sophisticated case—say, where the ledger is electronic and the cryptography is highly complex—they may to need to rely on a bevy of experts to demonstrate how it works and that the text, when unencrypted, says what it says.

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In your example, we’re going after the buyers. Now we know a guy named Adam bought drugs (assuming we’ve established that if someone’s name is in the ledger he or she bought drugs). So what? It’s evidence, but it’s not connected to anything—a phone number, an eyewitness, a photograph. A code deciphered by itself cannot stand, and I believe a case cannot endure successfully if half-evidenced and half-assed. Pieces of evidence are what builds a case. Sometimes, even if something can be admitted as evidence, it’s not useful unless it’s tied to other pieces of evidence that a judge or jury can use to apply to the case.


I live in Nantucket, MA. If I’m naked on my own property, but in uninhibited view of potential onlookers, am I able to be charged with any sort of indecent exposure? The property in question is not fenced in.

I should mention that I plan to walk to aforementioned portion of my property via a narrow property line that traverses a private road. And I plan on being naked for said walk.

What are my constraints here?

Sincerely,

That naked guy in a hammock

Indecent exposure out in the open in Massachusetts falls under a “Disorderly Person” charge, and applies on public or private property. Sigh:

There once was a man in Nantucket.

As for clothes on his land he said, “Fuck it.”

His neighbor was appalled.

So the police were called.

Then the DA pressed a charge and stuck it.


Ask a Lawyer is a practicing lawyer with over 15 years of broad legal experience. He is part of the team at Unwonk Podcast and can be found on Twitter. I really like people I quote here, but that doesn’t mean I endorse them, because ... I’m a lawyer. Keep in mind that this is general information, and not formal legal advice or legal representation; if you need any of that, you should get it from a lawyer in real life, not an internet column. A legal problem is serious and fact-specific, and you should treat it accordingly. But you have common sense and already knew that.

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