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What is a Scofflaw?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A scofflaw is someone who repeatedly and knowingly violates the law, or ignores legal summons to court and other proceedings. Many people use the word to refer to minor crimes, like parking violations and littering, reserving "outlaw" for someone who commits more serious crimes. Ignoring the law is usually not a very wise move, even when the laws seem minor, as repeated offenses can lead to a warrant for arrest and serious fines.

The history of the word is quite interesting. It arose during a contest held during Prohibition to describe people who flouted the laws against alcohol consumption. A $200 US Dollars (USD) prize awaited the winner, and since this was a large sum, a flood of entries came in. Among 25,000 entries, "scofflaw" became the clear favorite, and it was announced in 1924. Two people actually submitted "scofflaw" to the contest, and they split the prize between themselves. The neologism stuck, in marked contrast to other contests during the era which were meant to coin lasting additions to the English language.

Simply violating the law does not make someone a scofflaw, unless he or she is aware that the law is being violated. A scofflaw may also make fun of the law, or belittle it, arguing that the law in question is pointless or frivolous. In urban areas, scofflaws may ignore parking restrictions, avoid paying bus fare, or drop litter in the streets instead of depositing it in a garbage can. In rural areas, scofflaws speed, fail to restrain their dogs, don't wear seat belts, and decline to license their firearms.

Tax resisters may also be referred to as scofflaws, as might other people who are deeply committed to personal freedom. Some people may actually self-identify as scofflaws, rejecting government control over their personal lives. These people may also think of themselves as iconoclasts, arguing that they are rejecting the law because they are innovators. Many self-identified scofflaws distance themselves from outlaws who commit major significant offenses like murder, arson, and grand theft.

The choice to be a scofflaw is undertaken at personal peril. Many scofflaws choose their battles poorly, rather than carefully considering their actions and backing them with sound reasoning. For example, the choice to evade bus fare is accompanied by a hefty fine for the first offense in many areas of the world, and repeat offenses can result in other serious penalties. Likewise with parking offenses, which can end with the scofflaw's car impounded in a city lot until he or she pays to release it.

MyLawQuestions is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon986723 — On Jan 27, 2015

@anon96965- Who cares about the risk you take? Just stop subjecting your dogs to your stupid risks and put leashes on them before they get killed by a car.

By anon96965 — On Jul 17, 2010

I too would be considered a scofflaw according to the definition supplied here.

I walk my dogs without leashes. Cross roads without a crosswalk. Water my lawn on any day of the week I feel like. Ride my bicycle on the dirt path rather than the paved one. I even feed the pigeons in the park! Darn! LOL.

By anon96840 — On Jul 17, 2010

Our federal government is a scofflaw outfit. For example, failure to enforce the immigration laws in not sealing the border, not punishing employers and allowing sanctuary cities. Some in Congress and other officials don't seem to have much respect for laws in that they do not pay their income taxes. It seems to me this promotes more scofflaws.

D.W. Bales

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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