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Strangest Laws in San Francisco

September 2nd, 2013 · No Comments · news

Did you know that some San Francisco residents have the legal right to keep a miniature horse in their apartment and take it with them to places like City Hall and the public health clinic? We wanted to explore more about this and some of San Francisco’s other strange laws. We combed through the written laws and found those that made us raise an eyebrow. Now we know that we could be in serious trouble if we sell watercress grown near a sewer or clean our spittoon in the street.

San Francisco’s Strangest Laws on the Books

Unless there’s a link showing otherwise, all of the laws that we’re highlighting in this section are current San Francisco ordinances found on the American Legal website.

  • If you live in San Francisco, you must recycle. The San Francisco Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance (No. 100-09) says that you are legally required to sort your recyclables, compostables and trash. This is not just a suggestion, it’s a law.
  • You can’t sell watercress that’s been grown near a sewer. “No person shall gather, or sell, or offer for sale, or keep for sale, or give, or distribute, or otherwise dispose of any watercress, or any other edible herb or vegetable which has been, or is, or may be, growing within 1,000 feet of any sewer outlet, or any cesspool or any other place where stagnant water, or seepage, or other drainage, or any offensive matter, or any matter dangerous to health has, or may be accumulated.”
  • If you want to be naked in public then you have to get a parade permit. This is thanks to a controversial nudity ban that went into effect on February 1, 2013. Prior to that you could be naked in public if you so desired but you were required to sit on a towel if you were sitting on a public seat or bench.
  • It is illegal to walk nine or more dogs at once. This is part of a new 2013 law that places a variety of limitations on dog walkers.
  • You can’t clean your spittoon on the street. “No cuspidors, spittoons, tubs or other such articles shall be washed, cleaned or emptied on any public streets, sidewalks or alleyways in this City and County.”
  • It is illegal to sell or distribute ground squirrels.There are a lot of rules about the types and number of animals that you are allowed to own in San Francisco but section 103 of the health code is specifically all about making it illegal to sell or distribute ground squirrels.
  • You can’t carry manure through the streets. “It shall be unlawful for any person … to transport manure or stable refuse through the public streets …” There’s a lot more to the law than this but basically you need a permit to transport manure or other garbage from stables through San Francisco.
  • It is illegal to play ball in the street. “It shall be unlawful for any person to play at or participate in any game of ball on any public street or highway.” Keep those kickball games in the parks kids.
  • It is illegal to carry bread in an open basket through the streets. “It shall be unlawful for any person, company or corporation to carry, transport or convey, or to cause to be carried, transported or conveyed through the public streets in open baskets or exposed containers, or vehicles or otherwise, any bread, cakes or pastry intended for human consumption.” There won’t be any skipping through San Francisco with your bread basket here Little Red.
  • You have to ask permission before pointing a laser pointer into a moving car. “It shall be unlawful for any person to direct intentionally the beam from a Laser Pointer into a moving vehicle or onto another person without such person’s prior knowledge and consent.” You may not, however, point a laser pointer in a movie theater or other public space even with permission. Cars okay, with consent, theaters not okay. Got it?
  • You may not use feces to grow vegetables. That seems like a pretty reasonable law. “It shall be unlawful for any person, firm or corporation to use human discharges or excrement, or any water containing any human discharges or excrement, or the waters of any well, spring, pond or creek, which receives the discharges of any sewer or drain, or which by any means whatever has become polluted with sewage discharges, for the purpose of irrigating or sprinkling vegetables used for human consumption.”
  • Don’t fill balloons with explosive gas. “It shall be unlawful for any person, firm or corporation to use, sell or possess any balloon inflated with inflammable or explosive gases.”
  • It is illegal to sell mule meat. Mule meat and horse meat explicitly cannot be sold for human consumption in San Francisco. Thankfully.
  • Keep your lumber piles shorter than 35 feet tall. “It shall be unlawful for any person, firm or corporation to place or pile, or cause to be placed or piled, any lumber or timber to a greater height than 35 feet measured vertically from the general level of the ground on which it is placed or piled.” A 30 foot tall pile of lumber in the city doesn’t really sound like a good idea but apparently it’s not illegal.
  • It’s illegal to go into a public toilet with another adult. “It shall be unlawful for more than one person over the age of thirteen (13) years old to enter or remain in an automatic public toilet at one time, unless the person using the automatic public toilet has a disability that causes the person to require assistance, in which case the person’s assistants may enter and remain in an automatic public toilet with the disabled person.” Keep your bathroom activities solo people.
  • Keep your bodily waste to yourself. “It shall be unlawful for any person to deposit or cause to be deposited any human urine or feces upon any public or private highway or road, including any portion of the right-of-way thereof, or in or upon any private property into or upon which the public is admitted by easement or license, or upon any private property without the consent of the owner, or in or upon any public property other than property designated or set aside for that purpose.” If you read that carefully it seems to imply that you can put your human waste on private property if you do get the consent of the owner, though.
  • No Ker Chew! “It shall be unlawful for any person to sell, give away or in any manner to distribute within the City and County of San Francisco any “ker chew powders,” “stink balls,” or similar substances designed to give offense to the senses.”
  • You can’t ride a horse while drunk. Well, maybe you can, but it’s against the law if you do.
  • It is illegal to injure lampposts. “It shall be unlawful for any person to hitch or fasten any animal to, or to place any placard or notice upon, or in anywise to injure any lamp post or hydrant, or any growing tree, upon any public street, or, without authority, to extinguish any public light. This Section shall not prohibit any person from fastening any dog on a leash to any lamp post, hydrant or growing tree.”
  • You may not own a slingshot.  “It shall be unlawful for any person, firm or corporation to buy, sell, offer or expose for sale, barter, exchange, use or have the possession of any sling shot or metal knuckles.”
  • Dead bodies can’t be displayed for profit … unless the dead person said it was okay. “It shall be unlawful to display to the public all or part of a dead human body or bodies for consideration or commercial purposes without valid written authorization from the deceased, which consent may be given in the last will of the deceased.” 

Strange San Francisco Laws that May or May Not Be Current 

If you do a web search for strange San Francisco laws, you will find that there are a lot of old ones that were on the books at one time or another that frequently get posted on “weird laws” sites. They aren’t necessarily in the codes now, but they are a lot of fun to look at! Some of the favorites include:

  • Elephants may not walk down Market Street unless they are on a leash.
  • It is illegal to wipe one’s car with used underwear.
  • Ugly people are not allowed to walk down the street in San Francisco.
  • It is illegal to pick up and throw used confetti into the air.
  • “Prostitutes in San Francisco are not obliged to make change for bills larger than $50.” (source)
  • “San Francisco has an ordinance prohibiting “cane games.” City officials have no idea what cane games are. But when revising city laws recently, officials decided to keep the prohibition on the books, in case someday, somehow, cane games came back, they were deemed improper and the city needed the law.” (source)
  • The city of San Francisco holds a copyright on the name San Francisco so if you want to manufacture anything using that name then you have to get permission first.
  • San Francisco bans any “mechanical device that reproduces obscene language.” (source)
  • San Francisco is widely reported to be the only city in the nation to have ordinances guaranteeing sunshine to the masses.

And Strange California Laws

Likewise, there are a lot of weird California laws that may or may not still be on the books. Here are some favorites repeated often around the Internet:

  • It is illegal to wiggle while dancing according to a law form the 1920s.
  • California law prohibits a woman from driving a car while dressed in a housecoat.
  • Animals are banned from mating publicly within 1,500 feet of a tavern, school, or place of worship.
  • Peeling an orange in your hotel room is banned. Eating an orange in your bathtub is also banned.
  • You may not have a bear’s gall bladder in your possession in the state.
  • It is strictly illegal to trip horses for entertainment.
  • Prison workers may not have sex with inmates. This should be a given but apparently it wasn’t so now it’s a law.
  • “Film producers must have permission from a pediatrician before filming a child under the age of one month.” (source)
  • Dogs are banned from pursuing a bear or bobcat in this state.
  • It is a misdemeanor to shoot at any kind of game from a moving vehicle, unless the target is a whale.
  • In California, it’s a crime to pickle a spiny lobster.

Okay, So What About That Horse?

San Francisco has maintained a broader definition than the larger nation as to what defines a service animal. People with various disabilities here can get permission to have a service animal with them at home and in many public settings to assist them with a variety of different tasks. In most cases, the service animal is a dog … however in San Francisco it is also sometimes allowed to be a miniature horse. With proper permission a disabled person may keep their horse in their apartment (even though trying to get pets allowed in other situations may seem almost impossible!) The service animal can also enter public buildings including City Hall and the Department of Public Health, contracted agencies like public health clinics and mental health services and even certain alternative housing such as homeless shelters.


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