The Easter Bunny Caper

 

(This classic Dave Barry column was originally published Dec. 25, 1994.)

Like most people, you probably often ask yourself: ``What, exactly, are my legal rights if I am wearing a bunny outfit?''

The answer, you will be relieved to learn, is: ''It depends.'' To understand why this is, let us first consider a 22-page legal decision filed in October by U.S. District Judge David G. Larimer and sent to me by alert attorney James G. Vazzana, of Rochester, N.Y. Here, according to Judge Larimer's decision, are the Facts of the Case (and I want to stress that I am not making ANY of this up):

On April 23, 1992, Timothy Wagner and John Payment were traveling on holiday through western New York state. They stopped their van in a Cattaraugus County town called Randolph to eat breakfast, and they noticed a little girl in the restaurant. This, according to Judge Larimer, gave them an idea:

``The men decided it would be a treat for the girl if one of them went to the van, put on the Easter Bunny mask and walked to the window of the restaurant to surprise the girl.''

It seems that Wagner and Payment were traveling with (why not?) a large papier-mache bunny head. Each time they entered a new county, one of them would put on the bunny head and pose for a photograph next to the county sign on the roadside. (Judge Larimer notes that ''They also had a 7-foot stuffed dog in the van that apparently also posed for some of these roadside pictures.'' )

So Payment got the bunny head out of the van, put it on and waved into the restaurant window until the little girl saw him. Then he put the bunny head away and went back to finish his breakfast.

In some towns, Wagner and Payment might have gotten away with this. But Randolph is not ''some towns.'' Several alert citizens observed the Easter Bunny; they thought that it might have been looking into the windows of local banks. So a bank employee called the Cattaraugus County Sheriff's Department, which sent two officers to Randolph to investigate.

By then, Wagner and Payment had left town, but one of the officers, Lt. Ernie Travis, was able to trace Wagner's van from its license plate; he learned that Wagner had a criminal conviction (which later turned out to be related to income-tax-evasion charges).

So here was the situation:

1. Two strangers had been hanging around Randolph, and one of them had been wearing a bunny head in a possibly suspicious manner.

2. One of the men had been convicted of something.

3. There were banks around.

Lt. Travis, according to a deposition he gave later, as summarized by Judge Larimer, concluded that ''the men were bank robbers.'' So he issued an All Points Bulletin to apprehend the suspects, who were described as ``armed and dangerous.''

Wagner and Payment were arrested at gunpoint by state police, handcuffed and returned to Cattaraugus County. There the bank-robbery case against them-- which up to that point probably looked airtight -- began to fall apart.

For one thing, as Judge Larimer noted in his decision, no actual bank had been robbed. Also, Payment and Wagner did not flee, nor were they armed (unless you count the stuffed dog). Also, as the judge pointed out, robbers casing a bank probably would not wear a 2-foot-high bunny head featuring ``enormous pink ears.''

''Generally,'' observed the judge, ``stealth is preferred when engaging in such activity.''

So after a couple of hours in custody, Wagner and Payment were released, and everybody had a good laugh, and then Wagner and Payment sued for $2.1 million. Judge Larimer ruled that Lt. Travis acted improperly, and a jury will determine what the damages are.

This case reaffirms our fundamental right -- not specifically mentioned in the Constitution, but clearly on the minds of the Founding Fathers -- to look into bank windows while wearing bunny outfits. But that does not mean that we have carte blanche (literally, ''hors d'oeuvres'') to do whatever we wish. I have here a recent Los Angeles Times story sent in by alert reader Cathy Perlmutter concerning a 35-year-old, 225-pound man who dressed as a ''Samurai Bunny'' for Halloween, meaning that he carried a wooden sword and had (I am still not making any of this up) ''a stuffed bunny on his head.'' This man was arrested on suspicion of assault after he allegedly almost whacked off another man's ear with his sword when the man asked if he wasn't too old to be trick-or-treating.

So we see from these two cases that there is a ''fine line'' between legal and illegal bunny-outfit conduct, and the distinctions become even more blurred when we enter the arena of wearing giant chicken heads or -- this can be a legal nightmare -- two-person horse suits. So in this or any other legal matter, I strongly recommend that before you do anything, you pay a qualified attorney to give you advice that neither you nor he really understands. And make darned sure you register your stuffed dog.

© Dave Barry This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws. Electronic or print reproduction, adaptation, or distribution without permission is prohibited. Ordinary links to this column at http://www.miamiherald.com may be posted or distributed without written permission.

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