A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

18 Things You Think Are Illegal but Aren’t

It may come as a surprise, but all of these things are legal in the U.S., at least in some parts.

crime and law concept with police handcuffs on desk
Gunnar Pippel/Shutterstock

How do you know what’s illegal and what’s not?

Even the most law-abiding citizen doesn’t know all the laws out there by heart, so most people use common sense when it comes to determining what’s legal and what’s not. That’s why you will be surprised to find out these 18 things that sound like they would definitely be illegal are actually not. Also, check out these weird laws that you probably break all the time.

Squirrel monkey home pet (not in wildlife)
Ksenia Lev/Shutterstock

Having a monkey for a pet

Ross had one on Friends, so maybe you thought you too could keep a monkey as a pet. The thing about Friends, though—it’s fictional. In real life, you can’t have a pet monkey anywhere in New York, Alaska, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Utah, and Vermont. That said, good news for wanna-be monkey parents: It’s legal in all the 38 other states. In fact, in Oregon, you can have a monkey as a service animal, should your needs require it. Make sure you learn about the other 8 animals that are actually illegal to keep as a pet.

Siberian tiger (Panthera tigris altaica), also known as the Amur tiger.
Vladimir Wrangel/Shutterstock

Owning other exotic animals

While we definitely don’t think it’s okay to keep a wild animal as a domesticated pet, it’s not as illegal as you might assume in some states. Think you can’t have a bear for a pet? You’re wrong if you live in Massachusetts, where you can legally purchase your very own living, breathing, mauling teddy. Want a pet giraffe? You can have one in Florida. Pet tiger? You can have one in Delaware, as long as you obtain a license. Pet cheetah? Pet lion? Oklahoma is fine with both! Here are some more surprising pet laws.


Fat-free chips made with Olestra

Back in the 1990s, Proctor & Gamble came out with a fat substitute called Olestra (also known as Olean), and for a while, people ate it up in products like WOW potato chips by Frito Lay. It fell out of favor once people started realizing that trips to the bathroom seemed to happen…. very soon after ingesting these fat-free treats, often accompanied by some cramping. For a while, the FDA required warning labels on Olestra-containing foods, but not since 2003. Despite the fact that it also negates the body’s ability to absorb essential vitamins, Olestra is still fully legal in the U.S., which is why you should always read packaging. However, it is banned in Canada and all the countries in the European Union. Here are more bizarre things that are banned in other countries.

Jasmine rice in wooden bowl with wood ladle on old wood background, Dark tone, Copy space

Foods containing arsenic

Arsenic is one of the World Health Organization’s top ten chemicals of “major health concern.” “Long-term exposure to high levels of arsenic is associated with higher rates of skin, bladder, and lung cancers, as well as heart disease,” reports the FDA. The FDA has released statements about the presence of arsenic in rice, apples, and all organic fruits. But unlike the countries of the European Union, the U.S. has no ban on arsenic in our food.

Cute baby drinking milk from a bottle in a baby walker, happily and relaxes in the garden,Important part of the family.
Rchat.photo gallery/Shutterstock

Baby walkers

A baby walker is a seemingly adorable wheeled device that allows an infant to “stand upright” and “walk” by fluttering their tiny feet on the floor like Fred Flintstone. But medical experts have found that they impair baby’s mental and physical development, giving them mobility beyond their age-appropriate capabilities, and preventing them for learning essential skills (and developing essential muscles along the way) like crawling, pulling themselves upright, and eventually walking. They have also proven to be dangerous and even fatal, since they can help a baby go to places they shouldn’t, like the top of a staircase. Baby walkers are banned in Canada, but they’re legal here in United States pretty much across the board. Baby walkers might be legal, but there are some baby names that are definitely not.

Hand holding a ruler on white background

Spanking in school

Any kind of physical force used as a means of discipline (slapping, spanking, paddling, etc.) is known legally as “corporal punishment.” If you were never spanked in school, perhaps it’s because you grew up in New Jersey, where corporal punishment in schools has been illegal since 1867. However, corporal punishment is permitted in the following states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wyoming.

Child being punished.

Spanking at home

Spanking in school is legal in many states, but spanking at home is legal in all states. So is kicking, slapping, and whipping, as long as it’s considered “reasonable discipline” by a parent or caretaker. What is reasonable discipline? That’s determined by case law, so if you’re accused of “child abuse” when you thought you were engaging in “reasonable discipline,” your local judge will get to decide what’s reasonable and what isn’t. Here are some new laws that could affect your life.

Gold wedding rings
Kazin Sergey/Shutterstock

Marrying your cousin

Although some view it with a negative stigma, the fact is you can marry your cousin in every state in the United States. The only issue is which cousin. At least 25 states go so far as to allow you to marry your first cousin, which is your aunt/uncle’s kid. That being said, some states in which marriage between first cousins is permitted only permit it under certain circumstances (as in Arizona, where the couple must be over 65 years of age or in West Virginia, where only adopted first cousins are allowed to wed). Check out these 13 marriage laws you might be breaking right now.

Old shovel with wooden handle digging into the dirt

Backyard burials

In most states, it’s perfectly legal to bury your loved ones right in your backyard. Just be sure to pay attention to zoning laws (for example, laws which say how close to a body of water a burial may take place), and it’s always a good idea to consult a specialist. These bizarre things have been banned around the world.

Beer cans

Drinking booze…even if you’re under-age

The minimum age for legally drinking alcohol is 21 in all 50 states, but there are loopholes in all but five (those are Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, New Hampshire, and West Virginia). For instance, there are:

  • 29 states where minors can drink legally on private property with parental presence and consent
  • 6 states where minors can drink on private property without parental presence and consent
  • 25 states where minors can drink for religious reasons
  • 16 states where minors can drink for medical reasons
  • 11 states where minors can drink for educational purposes (think: culinary school)
Memory foam mattress

Removing that mattress tag

Bought a mattress? Go ahead, and remove that mattress tag. It’s not illegal. The tag is there for commerce purposes. Its removal is illegal only before purchase by the consumer.

Interior view of car with black salon
Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock

Driving naked

If you want to get behind the wheel of your car buck naked, that’s your prerogative. It’s totally legal. There is one hitch, however; getting in and out of the car could cause you legal problems. If someone sees you (and complains), you could be prosecuted for public lewdness.

Car leather seats

Sleeping in your car

In at least 14 states, it’s perfectly legal to sleep in your car at a rest stop (you’d think it would be more, right?). But it’s not really illegal to sleep in your car anywhere, unless your car is parked illegally or if you’re too drunk to be driving (if your blood alcohol content is above the legal limit, you should not be in your car at all). Here are some of the most confusing driving rules explained.

Automatic gear stick inside modern sport car. Luxury and expensive concept.
Thanakrit Pongprawat/Shutterstock

Driving while drowsy

One-third of all motor vehicle accidents are caused by over-tired drivers. However, it’s not illegal to drive a car while drowsy except in New Jersey and Arkansas. And most states that have attempted to put such a law on the books have failed thus far. Some far sillier laws persist, however: This is the dumbest law in every state.

Overhead view of surgical instruments
Dmitry Zimin/Shutterstock

Performing surgery without a good night’s sleep

One would hope a surgeon had a good night’s sleep before opening anyone up on an operating table. Unfortunately, despite widespread knowledge of how sleep deprivation impairs cognitive performance and motor skills, there’s no law that says a surgeon must have had a good night’s sleep or even any opportunity to sleep before performing surgery.

20 Things You Think Are Illegal but Aren't

Recording a conversation

In one-party consent states, such as New York, you can legally record a conversation with someone who has no idea you’re recording the conversation. For the most part, all states are one-party consent states, except for these 10: California, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Washington. Connecticut and Nevada are “mixed” consent states, where the consent laws vary by situation. You won’t believe these 25 bizarre international laws you’d never guess were real.

Handed wedding bouquet with roses and eucalyptus greenery.

Marrying your step-sibling

It may seem like a taboo, and certainly society tends to frown upon step-sibling relationships, the fact remains if you want to marry your stepbrother or stepsister, there is no U.S. law prohibiting it.


Going topless

In most U.S. states, it is just as legal for a woman to go topless as it is for a man. Notable exceptions include Indiana, Tennessee, and Utah. Some local laws ban female breast-baring, and police officers in some municipalities will arrest topless women for “disorderly conduct,” however such laws and such arrests are not likely to stand judicial/constitutional scrutiny. Next, check out these 50 things you won’t believe are banned in the U.S.


  • FindLaw.com: “Exotic Animal Laws by State”
  • Time: “50 Worst Inventions: Olestra”
  • FDA.gov: “Arsenic in Food and Dietary Supplements”
  • The New York Times: “The Dangers of Baby Walkers”
  • FindLaw.com: “Details on State Corporal Punishment in Public School Laws”
  • The Washington Post: “19 States Still Allow Corporal Punishment in School”
  • TheSpruce.com: “What Are the Cousin Marriage Laws in Your State?”
  • FindLaw.com: “Legal for Kids to Drink Alcohol With Parents?”
  • Funerals360.com: “Your Guide to Home Burials”
  • FindLaw.com: “Is it Illegal to Remove Mattress, Pillow Tags?”
  • Avvo.com: “Is it Illegal to be Naked While Driving Your Car?”
  • Frugal-RV-Travel.com: “Overnight Parking at Rest Stops”
  • NCSL: “Summary of Current Drowsy Driving Laws”
  • NCBI: “Should Sleep-Deprived Surgeons Be Prohibited From Operating Without Patients’ Consent?”
  • Digital Media Law Project: “New York Recording Law”
  • MWL-Law.com: “Laws on Recording Conversations in All 50 States”
  • FindaFamilyAttorney.com: “Is it illegal for step-siblings to marry?”
  • Time: “Here’s Where It’s Legal for Women to Go Topless in the U.S.”

Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York–based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest and in a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. Lauren is also an author of crime fiction, and her first full-length manuscript, "The Trust Game," was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.