Cut the Line, Do the Time?

The legal ramifications of queue-jumping.

In anticipation of Friday’s national launch of the iPhone, lines have been forming in front of Apple and AT&T stores around the country. In New York City, some have been waiting since Monday, braving downpours and 90-degree-plus temperatures. Cutting in line for iPhones would surely violate the unwritten laws of queuing culture, but could it land you in the slammer?

Probably not. Cutting in line makes you a jerk, not a criminal. For the most part, consumer lines aren’t governed by specific laws. Instead they are the product of informal, unspoken social agreements. (The fear of breaking these agreements, or, more likely, getting an arm broken, provides the necessary deterrent.) Because your spot in line isn’t a piece of property, you can’t expect the cops to arrest someone for stealing it. Nor would you have the legal right to shove the cutter out of line, since he doesn’t represent a threat to you or to something you own.

At worst, cutting in line, like running around naked or letting your dog bark too loudly, would fall under the catchall rubric of “disturbing the peace.” When someone disturbs the peace, cops usually give him a warning, ask him to leave, or write out a ticket. Offenders aren’t hauled off to jail unless they are intoxicated, don’t have proper identification, or put up a fight. In Washington state, legislators are close to passing a bill that would make cutting in line for the congested Puget Sound ferry (purchase required) illegal, but even there the punishment would be a small fine, not hard time.

Americans are pretty relaxed when it comes to queue etiquette. In England, cutting is only one of many line-related faux pas. Brits have devoted entire blogs to the art of lining-up, detailing offenses like trying to strike up a conversation with a fellow queue-ee. Some British police have even begun to encourage crash courses in queuing theory for foreign students studying in England. Meanwhile, the Chinese seem to have problems convincing people that lines are necessary in the first place. In February of this year, Chinese officials became so concerned about disorderly crowds at the 2008 Beijing Olympics that they introduced a monthly “wait-in-line day” in an attempt to educate people on how to queue up calmly and efficiently.

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Explainer thanks Susan Estrich of the USC Gould School of Law and Eugene Volokh of UCLA Law.