It’s almost time to ask, “Trick-or-treat?” — but in some cities across the country, local legislatures have implemented age limits for the Halloween pastime.
Instead of facing a costumed zombie or ghost, children over 12 could instead face the long arm of the law. Teens who violate the law can face jail time or fines of up to $100.
Former Belleville, Illinois, Mayor Mark Eckert led an initiative in 2008 to ban trick-or-treating by high school-aged youth in a community of about 35,000 residents.
“When I was a kid, my dad told me, ‘You’re too damn tall to go trick-or-treating. You’re done,” Eckert said at the time. “If that doesn’t happen, that’s a reason for city governments to intervene.”
While some Belleville residents complained about the ordinance, he said he hears more often from those who are grateful for the age limit.
Some cities have implemented age limits for children to participate in trick-or-treating, which may have legal ramifications due to the age restrictions. In the image, a child stops to look at a house decorated for Halloween on the Upper East Side
Some have set an age limit of around 12 years old to attend door-to-door gatherings. Teenage violators are punishable by prison sentences or fines
The “Halloween Solicitation” ordinance prohibits people over the age of 12 from wearing masks in public on all other days of the year and prohibits people over the eighth grade from trick-or-treating. This requires “approval from the mayor or police chief.”
Anyone who goes door to door must be finished by 9 p.m.
In Virginia, several cities have had age limits for trick-or-treating since the 1970s.
Until recently, Chesapeake had a law that could potentially send any teenager trick-or-treating to prison for six months.
The city eventually changed the law after a massive backlash, but there is still a law in place that says any child over the age of 14 is guilty of a misdemeanor.
The cities of Jacksonville, Illinois and Rayne, Louisiana both prevent children over the age of 13 from trick-or-treating.
City officials from Meridian, Mississippi, to Bishopville, South Carolina, and Boonsboro, Maryland, have also stopped the ritual at age 12.
Similar restrictions apply in Taft, Texas, where trick-or-treating is only allowed between 6 and 8:30 p.m.
Officials can’t recall anyone ever being arrested or fined for being too old to trick-or-treat
“The practice of people roaming the city late at night on Halloween night in previous years has … become undesirable,” placing a burden on police and creating “an intolerable situation,” their law states.
Still, officials can’t recall anyone ever being arrested or fined for being too old to trick-or-treat.
If anything, officers let teens get away with a warning or a call to their parents.
Even if they wanted to, officials admit the laws are difficult to enforce.
Still, they say the promulgation of the laws every year deters too many young people from violating the bans.
It’s not possible to know exactly how many cities have such ordinances.
The National League of Cities does not track the ordinances and states leave the matter to local governments.
Trick-or-treating grew out of the late medieval custom of children asking for treats in exchange for a prayer for the dead in the household, said Hans Broedel, a history professor at the University of North Dakota and an expert on early traditions.
Law enforcement often lets teenagers get away with a warning or a call to their parents
Trickery — usually vandalism and other debauchery by teenagers and young adults — was a big part of Halloween for a time until a conscious effort to target the celebration toward children in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Broedel said.
Excluding teenagers from trick-or-treating could make it more attractive to do other, less desirable things, he said.
“Trick-or-treating is largely accepted in this country because it serves to curb vandalism among teenagers,” Broedel explained.
“Telling teenagers they can’t go trick-or-treating certainly won’t stop them from going out and doing anything on Halloween.”