Some people believe that there’s a universal good, an inherent sense of right and wrong that exists independent of humans and our concepts of laws and justice. It’s this universal “right” that makes us feel like things have gone wrong if a criminal gets away with a crime. But that’s now how the law of man works and sometimes a would-be criminal isn’t a criminal at all, simply because no one got around to writing that crime down in a book of laws just yet. Is someone a criminal if the law they broke wasn’t a law yet?
10. Stock Market Fraudsters Who Hacked the French Semaphore System
They say information is power and in many cases it can also be money if you know what to do with it. These days, information travels in the blink of an eye, the internet can move messages at the speed of light. But in 1834, things took a little longer. And that meant Francois and Joseph Blanc, a pair of bankers from France, had time to use their information that people today don’t have.
In the 1700s, France set up a semaphore network, a series of towers that could transmit messages with flags. Change the position of the flags and you could spell out words so a person in another flag tower 20 miles away could see them with a telescope, write the message down, and then use his own flags to signal the next tower 20 miles further away. The network consisted of 556 towers across almost 3,000 miles.
The Blanc brothers were keen on making money on the stock exchange, but news traveled slowly by mail in those days, so what happened in Paris took time to reach them in Bordeaux. The brothers paid someone to send coded packages to a semaphore operator that related secret info about the stock market that would then be intercepted in Bordeaux by a former operator who decoded the messages for the brothers. This allowed them to learn information about the stock exchange and make some serious cash with their insider info well before anyone else.
The brothers were caught when their man sending coded signals got sick and tried to enlist a replacement who told authorities. The problem for the authorities was that nothing the brothers did had been against the law at the time. A new law was made soon after, but the brothers faced no repercussions.
9. The Grandmother Who Tried to Sell her Grandson
Back in 2008, Tracy Martin tried to sell her two-week old grandson to Paula Best for $2,000. She was going to throw in a car as well. Best alerted authorities because, obviously, there was a problem and the child was taken into protective custody while Martin was arrested.
While that seems like a proper end to the case, it wasn’t as cut and dry as it seems. Martin was arrested, but it was for a probation violation from a warrant in another state. At the time in Mississippi, where Martin lived, there was no law prohibiting the sale of children, so she couldn’t be charged with her attempt.
8. The Man who Created the Infamous I Love You Virus
In the year 2000, the internet was panicking over a virus known as I Love Your and/or the Love Bug. It was the biggest computer virus in history and infected 45 million computers. In the time since, the virus was tracked to Onel de Guzman, a man from the Philippines. For 20 years, he denied having anything to do with it until he finally admitted it to journalists, claiming he never intended it to be as bad as it was. All he wanted to do was steal some passwords to get online without having to pay for it.
It’s been estimated that the virus, which in addition to stealing passwords, would overwrite files and replicate itself as it sent itself to all of your contacts, cost billions of dollars thanks to the damage and disruption. But Guzman was never held accountable for what he did because the Philippines had no law on the books about creating computer viruses.
7. Jane Wenham Was Tried as a Witch
The Salem Witch Trials remain a dark spot in American history when countless women were baseless accused of witchcraft and other silly things, and a number were hanged as a result. Alleged witches were also being persecuted in Europe as well. And while some people were clearly caught up in the fervor, not everyone was so gullible or compassionless.
In 1712, Jane Wenham was accused of witchcraft. She was put on trial and a witness against her offered up proof of her crimes. They had seen her flying on a broom. However, the judge in the case was not a man prone to believing any fanciful story. He pointed out that there was no law against flying. Unfortunately for Wenham, a jury still found her guilty, and she was sentenced to death. The judge, however, ordered a stay of execution pending appeal, so she was never actually executed for the alleged crimes.
6. William McBoyle got away with Stealing an Airplane
Steal an airplane these days and you may get a few years in jail for your efforts. It’s not all that different from stealing a car. But that’s just because we’ve had planes around for a while and there are plenty of laws about them. In 1926, the world was a different place and planes were relatively new.
Back then, William McBoyle was able to get away with stealing an airplane because an airplane wasn’t legally considered a vehicle yet. When McBoyle was arrested for hiring a man to steal an airplane and bring it to him, he was charged under the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act. That act defined “motor vehicle” as “an automobile, automobile truck, automobile wagon, motorcycle, or any other self-propelled vehicle not designed for running on rails.” McBoyle’s defense was clear: none of those things described an airplane.
The 10th circuit court upheld his conviction but the Supreme Court did not. His conviction was overturned and McBoyle was set free due to a very literal reading of the law.
5. Child Abusers Were Not Subject to Human Laws
It’s hard to imagine there was a time when child abuse wasn’t illegal, but human history is full of evidence that we don’t apply laws or even compassion in an equitable manner. In the 1860s there were laws on how a person had to treat their pets and the ASPCA could fine you for animal abuse. At the same time, if you abused your child, it didn’t matter because there was no law against it.
This baffling situation came to light in the case of Mary Ellen Wilson. Born in 1864, her father died shortly thereafter and her mother was unable to care for her. By the time she was two, she was under the care of the New York Department of Charities. When a man named Thomas McCormack appeared and said he was her father, no one questioned it. He died and left the child with his wife, who hated the little girl. She beat the child every day with a braided horse whip, loud enough for the neighbors to hear. She was never allowed out and often locked in a small closet. The child was starved, cut and burned for over seven years.
When a mission worker laid eyes on the 10-year-old, covered in scars, bruises and burns, she vowed to save her. Because there was no law against such abuse, authorities refused to remove the child. So the mission worker sought the help of the ASPCA under the assumption that she was a little animal and deserved at least the same regard as a cat or dog.
The case was not tried under any animal laws, but a member of the ASPCA did assist in bringing it to light and finding justice. Once a judge heard the story, Mary Ellen was removed within 48 hours, her abuser was sentenced to a year of hard labor, and laws were finally enacted to protect children.
4. The Man Who Posted Revenge Porn in 2012
Revenge porn is one of the scourges of the internet and too many people have had to deal with it. Essentially, it’s the act of posting nude or sexual photos and videos of an ex after you break up and it’s as cruel as it is offensive. And while it’s illegal today, that wasn’t always the case.
A Saskatchewan man who posted photos of his ex-girlfriend online was acquitted on charges in 2015 because, when he committed the crime in 2012, the province had no law against the crime on the books. The judge acknowledged that what he did was despicable, but could not punish him for a crime that had not been recognized. If it had happened at the time he was in front of the judge, the story would have been different because, by that time, the act was illegal.
3. Fertility Doctors Stole Eggs and Implanted Them Into Other Women
Any time you go to a doctor, you’re putting trust in a person having your well-being in mind. Too often that turns out to be misplaced trust, but at least you can hope the law will back you up if that’s the case. But that’s not always something you can count on, either.
Fertility doctors Ricardo Asch and Jose Balmaceda had harvested eggs from their patients and implanted them in other women without anyone’s consent. As many as 60 women were affected and many never found out what happened to their eggs. This all took place in the 1990s, and both doctors fled from justice. Balmaceda is only facing repercussions in 2022 after he agreed to plead guilty. But the thing is he’s not being punished for the crimes related to his patients. He pleaded guilty to tax fraud. There was no law against taking eggs and implanting them into other patients at the time those acts were committed, so neither Balmaceda nor Asch can be prosecuted for it.
2. Safe Haven Laws Allow Parents to Abandon Children
A safe haven law is one that’s meant to save the lives of children. There have been occasions in the past when a person has abandoned a newborn baby to die, sometimes in places like bathrooms or dumpsters. In an effort to save those lives, safe haven laws provide a way to anonymously drop off a baby safely, at a hospital, for instance, with no consequences. The spirit of the law is definitely a good one and there’s no doubt lives have been saved. Unfortunately, it also had an unintended side effect.
Some safe haven laws refer to children in a general sense. While some have an age limit of 30 days listed, for instance, Nebraska did not. Because of that, parents began abandoning their older children, even teens, and they were legally protected in doing so. In one case, a man abandoned nine children, some as old as 17. In some cases, the children are abandoned because the parents can’t or won’t care for them, and in some cases it seems like the children are just unruly and the parents don’t want to try to control them any longer.
Nebraska officials maintain the age limit was left off on purpose to help older children in need, but others felt the law needed to be changed to address the issue.
1. Upskirt Photos are Not Illegal in Many States
No one likes an invasion of privacy and there are plenty of laws on the books to stop people from spying on you, whether that means hiding cameras in your house or listening in on phone calls. But there is one invasion of privacy that you may be surprised to learn is not against the law in numerous states – upskirt photos.
If you’re not familiar, upskirt photos are when a person literally positions a camera to take a picture up a woman’s skirt. This can happen on escalators or just out on the street with cameras installed in shoes.
In 2014, a judge in Washington DC said a man taking upskirt photos at the Lincoln Memorial didn’t violate any laws because the women were in public and had no expectation of privacy. The same thing happened in Massachusetts. The courts in Texas ruled that photos taken in public are protected by the First Amendment and could not be made illegal. The man in that case had been taking photos of children underwater at a public pool.
In Oregon, a man who got down on his knees in a Target store to photograph a 13-year-old girl was deemed to have not committed a crime for similar reasons. All this means you need to be extra vigilant when you’re out and about.