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Peter DeMarco | Who taught YOU to drive?

It may be nasty, but is it illegal?

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter DeMarco
January 6, 2008

Chances are you weren't a perfect driver in 2007. I sure wasn't. I did some pretty boneheaded things last year, beyond just the occasional cutting someone off or the pilfering of a parking space. For instance, I swore at other drivers - but only when provoked. I blew my horn obnoxiously - when obnoxiously cut off, of course. And I littered out the window - apple cores and chewing gum, but they're biodegradable, right?

With the new year, however, I resolve to end my bad driving behavior. You read it here first. Still - so I can prioritize - it would be nice to know which questionable acts are simply bad and which are actually illegal.

This week, a look at what our state laws say about mischievous motoring.

Q. Is it illegal to give someone "the bird."

A. I can't be the only person to ever have wondered about this. For the answer, I went to Paul Cardalino, a no-nonsense, retired Wareham police captain who teaches motor vehicle law at the South Suburban Police Institute.

"Just because I give you the finger, that doesn't mean anything. It's freedom of expression," Cardalino said. "You can't get in trouble for it."

Q. What about leaning out the window and swearing at another motorist?

A. "So what?" Cardalino asked. "Once again, if someone swears at you, it's freedom of speech. You'd better read the First Amendment, pal."

Of course, Cardalino does not promote cursing - if you lose your temper, the other motorist probably will as well. But, legally speaking, swearing is allowed.

Q. This summer, I watched a car cut off someone at an intersection. The car who got cut off laid on his horn for the entire red light - I estimate about 30 seconds. Is that legal?

A. Probably not, Cardalino said. If a police officer heard such a display, he could cite the driver for disturbing the peace, an arrestable offense. Or he could cite the driver with the lesser charge of harsh, objectionable, or unreasonable noise, a $50 offense.

In either case, though, an officer would have to have heard the horn to have issued a ticket.

Q. What about littering? Can you throw a cigarette out the window, for instance?

A. Definitely illegal. Not only that, but if you were to throw the cigarette in a wooded area, you'd be breaking the state's fire-prevention law. "Whoever drops or throws from a vehicle . . . any lighted cigarette, cigar, match, live ashes or other flaming or glowing substance . . . shall be punished by a fine of not more than $100 and by imprisonment for not more than 30 days."

Q. What if you're just throwing an apple core out the window?

A. Cardalino laughed at this one. Whether you throw an apple or a television set out the window, the law doesn't take kindly to littering. Under Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 90, the rules of the road, you can lose your license for up to seven days if you or a passenger is caught littering from your car. And we've all seen road signs stating fines of hundreds of dollars for littering.

If you were to throw a large amount of trash from your car - we're talking bags full of stuff - police could cite you for committing a "crime against public health." Under that section of state law, you could be fined up to $5,500 for littering within 20 feet of a public highway.

Q. How amorous can you be in your car?

A. I'll try to word this one carefully. Kissing is totally acceptable. So is pretty much all amorous behavior provided that clothes remain on.

Otherwise, having sex in a car, or exposing private parts while in a car, is no different than having sex or exposing yourself in public. And those activities are definitely illegal.

"A car is not like a house. The expectation of privacy is diminished," said Cardalino. "If I walk by your car and notice there's some marijuana in plain view, do I need a warrant to get that marijuana? Hell, no. The same goes for this question."

According to state laws, you could be charged with a variety of crimes - anything from indecent exposure to open and gross lewdness to fornication - none of which you'd want on your record. Police can and often do exercise great discretion depending on the circumstances, but criminal punishments are certainly available if officers choose to mete them out.

Q. Someone steals the parking space you shoveled out, so you stick a banana in their tailpipe? How bad is that?

A. The law is fairly silent about leaving a nasty note on someone's windshield. But sticking a banana in a tailpipe, pouring sugar into a gas tank (which destroys an engine), scratching a car's paint with a key, and hammering a nail into a tire or any other "touching" of a vehicle is a citable offense. Again, police have a choice of laws with which they can charge you.

On the extreme end, intentionally damaging a car could be a violation of Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 266, Section 126A, "Defacement of real or personal property," Cardalino said. "It's a three-year felony, plus on a guilty finding the person who did it will lose his license for a year."

You could get a slightly lesser punishment - two years in a house of correction or a fine of $1,500 - that's nearly as unappealing.

Sergeant Michael Maffei of the Cambridge Police Department's traffic unit told me that if you "key" someone's car, an officer could arrest you for larceny of a motor vehicle under state law.

The other option is for police to charge you under Chapter 266, Section 127. Under that section, if you cause less than $250 worth of damage to a vehicle, you could be fined but would not have to go to jail. Maffei said teenagers who egg cars or spray shaving cream on cars at Halloween could be cited for this lesser offense.

Spitting on someone's car might also fall under this category, Cardalino said, though you would have to prove the saliva "marred" the car.

Q. So, is it illegal for kids to chuck snowballs at cars?

A. "I don't know about snowballs at cars," Maffei said. "I don't want to weigh in on that one." In other words, probably not. If you can believe it, though, there is a state law that prohibits people from throwing snowballs at subway trolley cars. The fine? $500.

What drives you crazy about local drivers? Is there a traffic rule you've always wondered about, or a pet peeve that never fails to annoy you? Send us a message about it at ciweek@globe.com. We'll check it out.

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