Welcome to the May, 2018 edition of Freaky Friday here on Lawyers and Liquor! Yeah, I know, I got my dates all messed up, this is normally supposed to be the second Friday of the month and all that, but we’re in the process of re-vamping the Friday post timing and shit to match up to the interests. Freaky Friday will lead the month, followed by Fetish Friday, then Furry Friday on the third Friday of the month, with the last Friday of the month being open to topic suggestions from the Patreon supporters of the website. So, now that all that boring shit is out of the way, let’s get on back down to the brass tacks of talking about the law and shit as it relates to the paranormal, the strange, the creepy, and the down right strange with your ghost host, the BOOzy Barrister.
If you’ve ever been on the streets of any major city, you’ve likely seen a couple of places with neon signs in the window that blink on and off, saying shit like “FORTUNES READ!” or “PALM READING!” or other shit that’s really similar to that. It’s like a staple of the urban experience these days that there’s always some fortune teller willing to fire up the crystal ball, put on a headdress, and take your money in exchange for getting your fortune read in a room decorated to look like a Romani caravan from some bad 1930’s black and white Universal monster movie, right? So you amble in the door, you plop down your money, giggle with your friends even if you’re a member of the toughest of the biker gangs, and decide to see what the fates, or at least the person putting on weird accent across from you, has to say about your future.
[Newsflash: Your future will likely involve furries. I don’t know how at this point, but it’s a safe bet that furries will be involved].
It’s all in good fun, right! It sure is, Frank the Future-gazing biker. Right up until you realize that you may have assisted the fortune teller in breaking the goddamn law in your state.
We’re having an esoteric and academic discussion of the law. I am not your lawyer. This is not legal advice. Go see a lawyer in your jurisdiction if you need help with this. Also, don’t message me about this shit and your issues. I’m not interested, and there is no attorney-client privilege.
Drawing the “Felonious Activity” Tarot Card
First, let’s be clear: there are states out there that have made fortune telling illegal throughout the whole state. These include, for example, New York and Pennsylvania. However, there’s absolutely no fucking way I can discuss every state that currently has a law on the books that bans fortune telling in some way, because even if the state doesn’t have a law the municipality/town/county/collection of random individuals wielding pitchforks and torches like Frankenstein may have set up some sort of ban or restriction on it. If you’re looking for like…a fucking treatise on fortune telling laws, go ask your local psychic. They’re probably more up to date on where they can and can’t read palms than I am.
Why is it illegal where it is illegal?
There’s a really simple reason that fortune telling is illegal in the places it’s illegal:
The people who go to serious, professional fortune tellers asking to learn about their future and not for entertainment are generally gullible people prone to being fleeced out of their money. And when I say “fleeced out of their money,” I don’t mean “Oh no! They paid $100 to some palm reader in Center City and now they can’t buy smokes!” I mean more along the lines of “Oh no, this person over the course of like 6 years bilked three people out of $68,000 fucking dollars.” Or maybe the time a group of fortune-tellers took over $20,000,000 from a bereaved mother by promising to free her child’s soul from the “land between heaven and hell”? Or maybe the one that told an insecure and worried person that, in order to perform cleansing rituals, the “client” had to hand over her fucking credit card?
It’s an area that’s rife for abuse and fraud, and accordingly some places have said that, much like other areas where the innocents are frequently scammed as a result, it shouldn’t be legal.
You know some people really believe in this and view it as a part of their religion, right?
Yeah, and so does the law.
Let’s take a look, for example, at Pennsylvania’s fortune-telling law, which you can locate online here or in a dusty old book with a candle that’s screwed into a skull or some shit at 18 Pa.C.S. sec, 7104(a):
A person is guilty of a misdemeanor of the third degree if he pretends for gain or lucre, to tell fortunes or predict future events, by cards, tokens, the inspection of the head or hands of any person, or by the age of anyone, or by consulting the movements of the heavenly bodies, or in any other manner, or for gain or lucre, pretends to effect any purpose by spells, charms, necromancy, or incantation, or advises the taking or administering of what are commonly called love powders or potions, or prepares the same to be taken or administered, or publishes by card, circular, sign, newspaper or other means that he can predict future events, or for gain or lucre, pretends to enable anyone to get or to recover stolen property, or to tell where lost property is, or to stop bad luck, or to give good luck, or to put bad luck on a person or animal, or to stop or injure the business or health of a person or shorten his life, or to give success in business, enterprise, speculation, and games of chance, or to win the affection of a person, or to make one person marry another, or to induce a person to make or alter a will, or to tell where money or other property is hidden, or to tell where to dig for treasure, or to make a person to dispose of property in favor of another.
Breaking it down, the very first thing that pops out is the phrase “pretends for gain or lucre.” Alright, so what does that mean? It means you can tell fortunes all you want for free, but the moment you start to charge people for it you run afoul of the law in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Likewise, telling fortunes in order to get your name in a will or find out where someone has buried their vast collection of gold coins, or to get any property from someone, is forbidden by law. But if you’re saying “Well, I do it for friends as part of my religion and don’t really charge,” you’re in the clear.
But you’ll notice, of course, that there’s a key qualifier and expectation in the law as it exists in Pennsylvania, and that is that it says pretend. As in, “acting like you can, but not actually capable of doing it.” Which means…
If you can prove you can tell fortunes accurately, you have a defense.
I mean, I could see that argument being used. The law as set forth in Pennsylvania doesn’t make it illegal to actually tell fortunes, but rather makes it illegal to pretend to tell fortunes, cast spells, etc. and take money for it. So, I mean, if you’re actually fucking capable of doing the things that you advertise you can do for money, and can show in court that you can actually do those things through some form of sufficient evidence, arguably the law wouldn’t apply to you.
Which raises an interesting question of why our fortune-telling friends in the above sections didn’t simply…prove their alleged abilities to the court? Holy shit guys, the law is actually encouraging people to prove the existence of a hotly debated topic that has neither been confirmed or debunked on a complete level in hundreds of years. Can you imagine how fucking wonderful it would be to have a jury and judge look at someone and say “…we don’t think they were pretending. We think they can actually do that shit.”
That’s a high bar, so…
It’s a really high bar to prove the ability in court, and I know someone is going to say “you don’t ask your Pastor to prove the existence of God before donating.” However, there’s a difference there: The Pastor, while certainly encouraging you to donate, isn’t promising to provide you with a service in the here and now for the “donation.” Guys, promising to do things you can’t fucking do in return for money is theft by deception. It’s a really simple concept. We call it fraud in the legal world. And when you’re dealing with the sorts of people who may give a fortune teller thousands of dollars, you are dealing with a vulnerable person in almost every situation who is dealing with a professional whose livelihood is projecting an appearance of legitimacy in order to get your money.
And it isn’t like stupid people get caught up in this shit. Intelligent people do, too. Take for instance Becki, a corporate executive who was convinced by a Manhattan fortune teller that she was “cursed” while vulnerable after her marriage fell apart and ending up losing her goddamn house as a result.
These fortune telling “bans” aren’t discriminatory statutes so much as they exist to prosecute the worst offenders that prey on the weakest and most vulnerable of people in tough emotional spots. And to that extent they do good fucking things.
You know, some lawyers steal shit too. Should we ban lawyers?
I’m not saying all fortune tellers are bad, and frankly a lot of them are just providing what they say is an “entertainment service” to people. They say “it’s all an act, don’t take it seriously.” And that’s why a lot of them never get prosecuted, because they’re not saying “I’m right, now give me more money to fix it.” They aren’t predators. And that’s why, despite the laws in New York and Pennsylvania, and in other places around the country, you still see those neon signs lit up. It’s a fun little game.
Shit, that exact language is present in New York’s fortune telling statute:
A person is guilty of fortune telling when, for a fee or compensation which he directly or indirectly solicits or receives, he claims or pretends to tell fortunes, or holds himself out as being able, by claimed or pretended use of occult powers, to answer questions or give advice on personal matters or to exorcise, influence or affect evil spirits or curses; except that this section does not apply to a person who engages in the aforedescribed conduct as part of a show or exhibition solely for the purpose of entertainment or amusement.
But when a fortune teller is unscrupulous and begins milking the cow by insisting that what they’re saying is real and a failure to give them more money will have real consequences, that’s when we run into trouble. That’s when people get hurt and defrauded by someone with Madame in front of their name. And that’s when these laws come into play.
But when it’s scrupulous and done within boundaries? Well, then sometimes a responsible person with a fortune telling business can even have the laws changed for them!
And, in states like California (where a fortune telling ban was struck down), you can have municipalities like, oh, Riverside, saying that if you want to provide the services of a fortune teller for profit, you have to have a business license.
I don’t really have one. In any area where people deal with other people, there’s a risk of fraud and abuse. When those people are emotionally immature, upset, or hurt, that risk goes up. For the last 200 something years, people have used the claim of supernatural powers to defraud others our of money, preying on their beliefs and their desires. The laws that are in effect at least are there to stop the worst of the behavior, and to protect some of the most vulnerable out there from destitution at the hands of tricksters.
Till next time.