In Austria we have a law that forbids having 'dangerous animals' as pets. To be more clear the law then gives us a list of what is considered a 'dangerous animal' using latin names.

In this list we have the latin name 'Scolopendra gigantica' which refers to a giant centipede. Now, a little google search reveals that in fact 'Scolopendra gigantica' does not exist and they most likely meant 'Scolopendra gigantea'.

Now the thing is when it comes to latin names (and the pet trade that this law tries to regulate uses almost exclusively latin names) it is important to get it correct as similar sounding latin names can still mean different animals. For example a 'Grammostola pulchra' is an entirely different species of tarantula than a 'Grammostola pulchripes'.

So one could argue that I could go to a pet shop, see something named 'Scolopendra gigantea', check real quick if it is on the list of illegal animals and since it is not on the list buy it without second thought.

Now my questions are:

  1. Could this mean legal consequences or would I be safe as I "bought nothing illegal"?
  2. If a scientist discovers a new type of centipede and names it 'Scolopendra gigantica', would it be illegal immediately?
  3. If it was illegal to own a 'Scolopendra gigantea' due to that law and a scientist now names a new centipede 'Scolopendra gigantica' would that immediately legalize the 'Scolopendra gigantea'?

Sidenote: I don't plan on getting one, it just intrigues me how this would be ruled because honestly, I have not even the slightest clue.

1 Answer 1


In the vast majority of countries (both common law and civil law), statutes are interpreted in a manner that reflects the intend of the drafters of the statute a.k.a. legislative intent, when it is possible to reasonably determine what was intended.

There is a canon of statutory interpretation in almost all legal systems that provides that absurd or nonsensical interpretations of legislative language are to be disregarded in favor of those that reflect the likely intent of the body passing the law, even if the literal and technical reading of the words does not state precisely what was intended.

Thus, if there is a clear grammatical, punctuation, or spelling error and the intend meaning can be discerned from the language of the law, the larger context of the law, or extrinsic evidence such a legislative history and public discussion of the reasons for enacting the law in the first place, those clues will be used to interpret the legal effect of a law.

  1. Could this mean legal consequences or would I be safe as I "bought nothing illegal"?


Ignorance of the law is no excuse even in cases where the interpretation of the law calls for the courts to ignore minor errors in legislative drafting. You would have an argument, but where you can state "in fact 'Scolopendra gigantica' does not exist and they most likely meant 'Scolopendra gigantea'." The likelihood that you will face legal consequences is great.

Also, in this particular example, keep in mind that biological species sometimes have more than one accepted Latin name, or once had a different name than the currently accepted name.

For example, in this case, "gigantica" and "gigantea" are different grammatical inflections of the same Latin root word, and really are the same word in the same way that "geese" and "goose" are different tenses of the same word in English that refer to the same genus of birds.

  1. If a scientist discovers a new type of centipede and names it 'Scolopendra gigantica', would it be illegal immediately?

The judges would look at all of the facts and circumstances and decide if the new species was within the scope of what the law intended to ban. But, the mere fact that the word is the same would not make the law apply to it.

In the same way, suppose that a law had an exemption and didn't apply to animals in the town of Zootopia where many exotic pets are naturally common in the wild because a failed zoo released them into the area. But, given that context, the town of Euclid could not make itself exempt from the law by renaming itself Zootopia after the former town of Zootopia was disincorporated after its residents were all eaten by lions.

  1. If it was illegal to own a 'Scolopendra gigantea' due to that law and a scientist now names a new centipede 'Scolopendra gigantica' would that immediately legalize the 'Scolopendra gigantea'?

No. For the same reasons discussed above.

Footnote Re Similar Issues With Controlled Substances Laws

This said, the issue you discuss does come up, and sometimes wins and sometimes loses, in the case of laws regulating controlled substances (i.e. illegal drugs).

One of the reasons that this comes up is that the proper names of chemical substances in organic chemistry is not, as it is in biology, arbitrary. The name of an organic chemical is determined from looking at which atomic elements in which combinations with what kinds of bonds to each other are present.

Given a chemical diagram of an organic chemical, every organic chemist would give it the same name, even if they've never discussed it, and likewise, you could ban an organic chemical that has never been observed or synthesized in real life and it would be illegal if it ever was synthesized.

These statutes have usually been interpreted strictly to apply only to the named chemicals, but usually include an additional statutory section that either ban "analog" chemicals that are intended to or do have the same biochemical effect as the banned chemical, or allow an administrative agency to add new chemicals to the list without legislative action.

Still, complications do come up even then because many lawyers and legislators become lawyers or politicians because they couldn't become doctors or engineers, because they flunked organic chemistry. (Joking aside, almost 50% of college students in the United States taking organic chemistry for the first time fail the course. This and first semester calculus are the most frequently failed college courses in the United States.)

The Florida Cheese Ban

For example, Florida recently classified a chemical present in many kinds of ordinary cheese as a controlled substance, which would in theory make every grocery store owner and millions of Floridians felons.

Florida probably meant to ban high concentration synthetic extracts of that chemical administered as a drug, but didn't do anything to say so. But interpreting the statute to have that meaning was harder in that case since the same statute applies to many, many different drugs and the interpretation of the statute would make the ban on the chemical found in cheese make sense, would not make sense for the other drugs on the list.

But, Florida courts may ultimately end up ignoring the addition of that chemical to the list based upon the canon against absurd interpretations, at least on an "as applied" case by case basis where the literal meaning of the statute would make millions of Floridian felons for violating this law.

The Grand Junction Conviction For Possession Of A Legal Drug

Another case came up in Grand Junction, Colorado where a woman was prosecuted by a government lawyer for possession of a controlled substance for possession of a chemical named in the indictment, and her government provided public defender had his client plead guilty to the crime.

The woman tried to explain that this made no sense since its was an ordinary prescription drug, but the prosecutor, her own lawyer and the judge didn't believe her, and her public defender told her she was certain to be convicted anyway. (It isn't clear if she actually had a prescription for the drug, but even if she didn't, it wouldn't have been a crime.) So, she took a plea deal and was sent to prison to serve a medium length incarceration with work release sentence, instead of the medium length prison sentence she could have received if she went to trial, was convicted, and received a typical sentence for that conviction.

The problem was that the chemical she was indicted for possessing in violation of the controlled substances act wasn't actually on the controlled substances list and wasn't an analog version of a controlled substance. There was also no reason to think that the drug she was convicted of possessing which had no pleasurable psychoactive effect was ever intended by the legislature to be banned or regulated.

About a year later, in the year 2005, when this issue was ultimately discovered, a different criminal defense lawyer brought a post-conviction challenge to the conviction on the convicted woman's behalf, and the convicted woman was released with the conviction vacated, because the crime she was indicted for committing and convicted of didn't exist.

Allysan Isaac, 24, was held nearly a year in work release for something that a judge said Tuesday was not even illegal. "You were incarcerated for a case that was not a crime," said Mesa County District Judge Brian Flynn, who presided over the case.

Flynn, the prosecutor and Isaac's defense attorney were unaware last year that the offense she was charged with was not a violation of the law.

No one had noticed that a prescription drug found in Isaac's possession, an anti-anxiety medication called Buspirone, is not a controlled substance. ... District Attorney Pete Hautzinger said he had "no idea" why Isaac had been charged with and convicted of something that wasn't a crime.

The defense attorney who represented Isaac in the first case was also baffled. "I don't have an answer," assistant public defender John Burkey said. "Nobody caught it. The police were saying it was a controlled substance."

(Source quoting from and citing an article I read and confirmed the story from in the Rocky Mountain News, a now defunct newspaper. Corroborated here.)

Incidentally, even though this woman was horribly wronged because of this wrongful conviction, the prosecutor and judge had absolute immunity from civil liability for the wrongful conviction, and criminal liability requires knowledge that you are committing a crime. The government likewise had no duty to compensate her for her wrongful incarceration because her rights weren't intentionally violated by anyone as required by civil rights statutes.

She may have had a claim for legal malpractice against her own lawyer, for which negligence can be a basis of liability. Even that would have been a difficult case to win, however. This is because she would have to show that the public defender violated the standard of care of a reasonable lawyer by relying upon law enforcement's claim that a substance was a chemical banned by the controlled substances act which is a question of fact upon which expert witnesses could reasonably disagree. There is nothing in the public record to show that she pursued such a claim, but a private settlement reached before the case was filed wouldn't be revealed in that way. So, it is possible that a private settlement was reached in a legal malpractice case against her public defender that never actually resulted in a case being filed in court.


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