Halloween night in 1967 was wild in Portsmouth, Virginia: One teenager flung a firecracker into a younger trick-or-treater’s bag, and another used a steak knife to stab a 14-year-old who stole a bag of candy.
Afterwards, about 30 civic groups and PTAs petitioned the city council to impose age limits for trick-or-treating and restrict the hours when children were allowed to go door-to-door. The result was a trick-or-treating ordinance that punishes trick-or-treating over the age of 12 (unless a person is supervising a younger child) or after 8 p.m. as a misdemeanor, with a fine of up to $500.
Portsmouth isn’t the only municipality to regulate the annual candy-grab by assorted ghosts, pirates, and superheroes. In Chesapeake, Virginia, trick-or-treaters older than 12 face a fine of “not less than $25.00 nor more than $100.00 or … confinement in jail for not more than six months or both,” according to the text of a city ordinance, and asking for candy after 8 p.m. risks a maximum fine of $100, up to 30 days in jail, or both.
Outside of Virginia, Bishopville, South Carolina; Meridian, Mississippi; and Boonsboro, Maryland all have similar rules. Even the town where candy corn originated—Belleville, Illinois—bans anyone over 12 from trick-or-treating.
Some communities impose highly specific restrictions. If Halloween falls on a Sunday, the youth of Livingston Parish, Louisiana, have to wait until Monday to collect candy. In Walnut, California, trick-or-treaters can’t wear a mask or disguise; in the state of Alabama, they’re not allowed to dress up as a member of the clergy. And don’t even think about using silly string with your costume in Hollywood, California, unless you’re prepared to cough up a $1,000 fine.
Aside from spooking the few citizens who are aware of them, why are these laws even on the books? It seems many were adopted in panic to prevent dangerous incidents on Halloween, and then no one acted to get rid of them in subsequent years.
“The ordinance is there in the interest of making sure our police force has an option to enforce it,” Heath E. Covey, director of public communications at the City of Chesapeake, told CityLab. Asked what enforcement would look like, Covey said the ordinance has hardly been enforced over its 50-year existence. “I would assume [enforcement] would look like what the ordinance says, but … I don’t know exactly how that would be.”
Civil-rights advocates say that cities are punishing harmless fun. “These ordinances unnecessarily criminalize behavior and impose penalties that are grossly excessive. They are overly broad and impose arbitrary limitations that are not demonstrably connected to public safety,” Jennifer Safstrom of the ACLU of Virginia wrote in a statement.
Safstrom pointed out that nuisances such as late-night noise or pumpkin smashing are already covered by laws regarding destruction of property and disturbing the peace. “Trick-or-treating ordinances of which most are unaware are unlikely to restrict any troublesome behavior that is not already prohibited,” she wrote.
Recent news coverage has sparked a backlash against the laws. Care2, an online petition platform, started a petition on October 9 asking Chesapeake to repeal its age limit. Since then, more than 14,000 people have signed it. Commenters have argued that trick-or-treating should be a family decision and local governments should “let kids be kids.”
Although many ordinances are decades old, it’s possible that they could still be enforced—selectively, said Rebecca Gerber, senior director of engagement at Care2. “The fear is that they would be used to target black and brown communities,” Gerber said. “We’ve all seen, this year, the viral videos of particularly white people who have called the police [saying] that there has been a minor infraction or annoyance,” like barbecuing, waiting for an Uber, or napping in a college dorm. Safstrom echoed that concern: “There is a significant risk that these policies will not be enforced consistently, disproportionately impacting children and people of color and persons with developmental disabilities.”
Care2 says it has not yet gotten a response to its petition from Chesapeake officials. The city’s police say they won’t be “actively seeking out violations” on Halloween night. All that trick-or-treating youngsters (and their parents) in cities with ordinances can do is watch the clock and hope a neighbor complaint doesn’t come between them and their fun-size Snickers.