Across US, the law isn't what it was 5 days ago

It was a great day for snack cakes in Maine.

Most people might be inclined to think of Jan. 1, 2001, as the dawn of the new millennium. But Mainers know it was something altogether more momentous: the day the Pine Tree State dropped its 10-year-old tax on snack foods.

In every state, this week marks more than the beginning of a new calendar and the end of the college football season. It's a time when Americans adjust to new laws that come with the new year.

In New York's Suffolk County, on Long Island, commuters can no longer use hand-held cellphones in their cars. Illinoisans can't videotape people in locker rooms, homes, or hotel rooms without their consent. And California prisoners who were wrongly convicted now get $100 for each day they spent behind bars.

The list of new laws is, in many ways, a snapshot of American values and concerns at the hinge of a new century. From jury duty to teen smoking, abandoned babies to hair braiding, the laws are both profound and humorous - charting a nation's path in ways that challenge historical injustices and change trips to the neighborhood grocery store.

Some of the new codes border on the bizarre.

There's the decision that professional hair braiders in California do not need a cosmetology license. Or the mandate that Minnesota hunters caught faking a disability to get a special permit face as much as a year in jail.

In the North Star State, it turns out, all sorts of people - far more than the state Department of Natural Resources expected - applied for the hunting licenses: men with balky ankles, women seven months pregnant. Before the special permits were issued in 1994, about 600 registered hunters were listed as disabled. Now there are some 10,000.

"A lot of people abused it," says Dennis Stauffer, communications director for the department. "We were pretty much taking people at their word.... You expect people to act honorably, but it's clear from the numbers that wasn't the case."

Other laws simply come from bizarre circumstances.

Take the Illinois law about illegal videotaping. In August, a group of college athletes, including football players from four Big 10 schools, filed a lawsuit saying they were filmed in locker rooms, and then the film was posted on the Web with language that would make a nose tackle blush. Now, such filming is a misdemeanor, and disseminating it is a felony.

To be sure, there are always those cultural curios - bits of trivia that become footnotes to a moment in time. New York cab drivers will have to go through a driver-safety program, and residents in Idaho and Connecticut can put themselves on "no call" lists for telemarketers. California jurors get a pay raise from $5 to $15 a day. And people dining out in Florida can eat with assurance: The state now requires restaurant workers to be trained in proper food-handling techniques.

Most of the new regulations, though, touch on deeper themes. Chicago, for example, with an aging workforce, is forcing city police officers and firefighters to retire at 63 - part of an effort to get younger people into positions of more authority.

These laws reflect on the year gone by like a current-events quiz.

* The rise in the use of date-rape drugs prompted New York and Michigan to ban them.

* Fresh from the successful assault against Big Tobacco, states targeted teen smoking. New York prohibited minors from buying herbal cigarettes, and outlawed all sales over the Internet. Illinois declared flavored cigarettes called "bidis" illegal.

* Allegations of racial profiling in New Jersey led to a study in Tennessee and measures designed to stop the practice in California and Massachusetts.

* A rash of abandoned babies prompted Michigan and California to join more than a dozen other states in allowing mothers to avoid prosecution if they leave their newborns at hospitals or police or fire stations.

* States ranging from South Carolina to Vermont are moving beyond presidential-debate proposals and starting programs to cut prescription-drug prices. "Prescription drugs is one area where states took the lead," says Gene Rose of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

But some states have taken bolder steps to address issues that arose during the past year. California, in particular, saw most of its 1,088 new laws come into effect on New Year's Day.

With two pioneering measures, the Golden State responded to the growing public concern that innocent people may be in jail and on death row. The $100-a-day compensation for wrongly convicted inmates lifts the previous $10,000 cap on state payments. The second law lets felons get a DNA test if they can persuade officials that the results could change the outcome of the case.

"More and more states are considering how DNA is used to look at death-penalty cases that have been closed," adds Mr. Rose.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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