In 1789, President George Washington borrowed two books from the New York Society Library. The books, however, were never returned during his lifetime, and the library ledger went missing. It wasn’t until 1934 that the ledger was found again, and not until 2010, that Washington’s estate returned an identical copy of one of the books. The fine would have been $300,000 as of 2010. But, of course, the library didn’t pursue the overdue fine. Here are more stories and crazy reasons people, unlike President Washington, received fines for and had to pay.
1. In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant got a speeding ticket while riding on his horse-drawn carriage and was fined $20.
According to an article published in the Washington Evening Star on September 27, 1908, William H. West became the first police officer to have ever arrested a president. The first time Grant, who apparently loved fast horses, was speeding away on his carriage, West stopped him and told him he was violating the law and setting a bad example to other gentlemen. Grant apologized and promised not to do it again.
However, the president was caught again speeding through Georgetown the very next day, and it took West the whole block to slow him down. This time, Grant had a smile with a guilty-schoolboy look on his face. West arrested him and took him to the station where the officers weren’t sure if they could charge a current president. Grant paid a $20 bond but did not show up at court. (source)
2. In 1980, George Lucas was fined $250,000 and The Empire Strikes Back was almost pulled out of theaters because he put the credits at the end of the movie to preserve the dramatic, opening sequences.
The Writers and Directors Guild had no problem allowing the Lucasfilm Company credits appearing at the beginning of the first Star Wars (1977) film since the company name and the writer-director’s name (George Lucas) were the same. However, they objected to it for Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back when the names of the writers and the director appeared at the end instead. When the Directors Guild also attacked the director Irvin Kershner, Lucas’ former professor, and a veteran independent filmmaker, Lucas paid all the guilds’ fines to protect him. In the end, Lucas left all the guilds and the Motion Picture Association. (source)
3. In 2014, a Florida man landed himself with a fine of $48,000 by the FCC for using a powerful cellphone jammer every day while traveling to work because he didn’t want other drivers around him to be distracted by their phones.
Jason Humphreys used his cellphone jammer, illegal in the US as it might prevent emergency calls, without being detected for two years. The Metro PCS noticed that reception was disrupted twice every day along the same stretch of Interstate 4 highway. The FCC soon pinpointed Humphreys’ Toyota Highlander, and as the officers pulled him over, they found their radios stopped working too. The furious FCC handed him the hefty fine stating he could have unknowingly jammed first-responder communications too. (source)
4. In 1982, a Los Angeles man tied 43 weather balloons filled with helium to his lawn chair and went 16,000 feet (4,600 meters) up in the air. While drifting, he lost the device used to pop the balloons to descend, broke a power line causing a 20-minute blackout, and was fined $1,500.
Lawrence Richard Walters dreamed of flying and wanted to become a pilot. When his poor eyesight put an end to that dream, he decided to use weather balloons, an idea he had since he was 13. On July 2, he set up his contraption and packed some sandwiches, beer, a CB radio, something to pop the balloons, and a camera. As he went up in the air, he was spotted by two commercial airliners and slowly drifted over Long Beach Airport. As he slowly descended, one of the dangling cables of one of the popped balloons caught a power line and broke it causing a blackout. But, he landed safely.
Walters was immediately arrested by the Long Beach Police and was initially fined $4,000 for violations under US Federal Aviation Regulations. The fine was later brought down to $1,500 when he appealed, and the charge for flying a craft that wasn’t airworthy was dropped. His stunt inspired several people to fly, even giving birth to a new extreme sport called “cluster ballooning.” (source)
5. In 1996, a Swedish couple submitted their child’s name as “Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb11116” to protest the law which fined them $1,182 for not registering his name by his fifth birthday. The court rejected the name and upheld the fine.
Sweden has a law that first came into effect in 1982 that a first name must be approved when an individual wishes to change their name or parents want to name their child. According to the law, a first name will not be approved if it can cause discomfort to the person or if the name is unsuitable to be a first name for obvious reasons.
The Swedish couple who were fined 5,000 kronor ($740 at the time and $1,182 as of 2018) were Elisabeth Hallin and David Diding. In response to the fine, they tried to register the strange 43-character name in May which apparently was to be pronounced “Albin.”
They said that the name was “a pregnant, expressionistic development that we see as an artistic creation,” and that it must be understood in the spirit of pataphysics (a philosophy that deals with imaginary realms beyond metaphysics). When the name was rejected, they changed the spelling to just “A” which, again, was to be pronounced “Albin.” This was rejected too, and the child’s name remains unknown. (source)
6. A Los Angeles man with a personalized license plate that read “NO PLATE” received 2,500 overdue traffic tickets. All the tickets issued for cars with no plate were automatically redirected to him when his car marked “NO PLATE” appeared on the system.
In 1979, Robert G. Barbour, a West Los Angeles sailing enthusiast and hardware manufacturer, applied for personalized plates. The California Department of Motor Vehicles form had space for three choices. Barbour’s first choice was “SAILING” and the second choice was “BOATING.” Since he had no third choice, he just wrote “NO PLATE” below them. Interestingly enough, the third choice was approved.
However, a few days later, Barbour began to receive dozens of overdue notices from all over the state. About 2,500 followed in the next six or seven months. That’s when he realized what was happening. When he wrote to the DMV, they just told him to change the plate. But, he had grown to like his plate and so kept writing to them. Two years later, the DMV issued a notice that the word “none” should be used for citations instead of “no plate.” (source)
7. In 2009, a woman was fined $1.9 million for downloading 24 songs, $80,000 for each song.
On February 21, 2005, Jammie Thomas-Rasset, a Native American woman from Brainerd, Minnesota, downloaded 24 songs by bands such as Aerosmith, Green Day, and Guns N’ Roses on Kazaa, a file-sharing application. She received a cease-and-desist letter from the RIAA in August and settlement offer of $5,000 from Capitol Records. However, Thomas-Rasset declined, and what followed was the first file-sharing, copyright infringement lawsuit by major record labels tried before a jury in the US.
The Capitol Records, Inc. v. Thomas-Rasset case lasted from 2007 to 2013 with several trials and appeals, and the fine reached $1,920,000 at one point. In the end, she was found liable and was ordered to pay $220,000. In March 2013, she declared bankruptcy to avoid paying the fine. She also refused the RIAA’s suggestion to make a video about what she did. As of 2016, no one knows if she has paid the fine or not. (source)
8. For every game Michael Jordan played wearing Nike trainers, the NBA issued a fine of $5,000 because they didn’t match the team’s uniform. Nike, however, gladly paid it every time, a total of $410,000 for all the games in a standard season.
Nike released its first design of Air Jordan sneakers on September 15, 1985. But, a month later, David Stern, the NBA Commissioner, forbid Michael Jordan from wearing them during games because of their bold, red-and-black color scheme which was at odds with the jerseys the Chicago Bulls wore. The fine Jordan received, however, didn’t amount to much considering his salary was $630,000 and the $410,000 that adds up over an 82-game regular season was taken care of by Nike. (source)
9. In Finland, traffic fines are proportionate to the person’s income at the time. In 2002, a former Nokia director got himself a fine of $103,600 for speeding at 75 kph (47 mph) in a 50 kph (31 mph) zone.
Nokia’s director of 19 years, Anssi Vanjoki, was caught speeding on his Harley-Davidson motorbike in Helsinki in October 2001. According to Finnish law, Vanjoki had to pay 14 days of his income as a fine. But since Nokia’s share price plummeted back then, his income fell too. In February 2002, after an appeal, the Helsinki District Court reduced the fine from €116,000 ($103,600 in October 2001) to €5,900 ($5,133 in February 2002). The record for the highest amount of fine before Vanjoki belonged to an Internet millionaire Jaakko Rytsola, who had to pay €80,000. (1, 2)
10. In 2018, a Florida man was given a fine of $30,000 for not mowing his lawn while he was away visiting his mother’s estate for a month and his home is under the threat of foreclosure.
Jim Ficken, a 69-year-old man from Dunedin, Florida, was away in South Carolina to settle his late mother’s estate for eight weeks when the grass in his lawn grew over 10 inches. Unfortunately, his friend who usually mowed his lawn passed away unexpectedly. When Ficken tried doing it himself, the lawnmower broke down. The staff at the Code Enforcement Board, however, kept adding up a fine of $500 each day while he was away without informing him.
When the same thing happened during another visit to his mother’s estate, the board had put him down as a “repeat offender” and threatened to foreclose on his home. By then, he had had enough. In total, the fine amounted to $29,833.50. Recently, lawyers at the Institute of Justice have taken his case, pro bono, stating nobody should have to lose their house because of tall grass. (source)