The Cautionary Instruction: Seeing into the future is illegal in Pennsylvania

Friday, 13 September 2013 06:00 AM Written by  Matt Mangino

20130913 crystalball phtoocomskd283610sdc 150Fortune telling is against the law in Pennsylvania and has been for more than 150 years. The antiquated statute was in the news recently when 26-year-old Jennifer Marks of Hermitage in Mercer County was accused of charging people hundreds, even thousands of dollars for mystic solutions to their everyday problems.

Marks was arraigned before a district magistrate last week on charges of fortune telling and theft by deception.

The statute which criminalizes fortune telling reads like something from a dime store novel. A person is guilty of the charge if they "tell fortunes or predict future events … pretend to effect any purpose by spells, charms, necromancy or incantation, or advise the taking or administering of what are commonly called love powders or potions."

A violation occurs if the fortune teller can "stop bad luck," "give good luck," "win the affection of a person," or "tell where to dig for treasure," in return for "gain or lucre."

In 2009, a Chester County woman was prosecuted under the statute. “It certainly is a rare occasion to see someone prosecuted for fortune telling, but it is a viable statute," said Chester County Judge Anthony Sarcione.

In 2007, Philadelphia City inspectors shut down more than a dozen psychics, astrologers and tarot-card readers with the threat of prosecution. Inspectors did not make arrests or issue fines, “but they will if these people try to return to work,” said Dominic E. Verdi, deputy commissioner of the city Department of Licenses and Inspections.

Police alerted the department of the statute only days before the sweep. Verdi said, “I was surprised.”

The Philadelphia housing inspectors are not the only ones surprised by the statute. Thomas Young a Johnstown attorney wrote in 2010, that the last time the statute was the subject of appellate review was “in 1935 in the Cambria County Courthouse.”

Just across the line in Ohio, fortune telling is not illegal. In fact, the practice is licensed by the state. Fourteen years ago, a Louisiana federal judge struck down a 1982 ban on palm reading and fortune telling. Judge Tucker L. Melancon ruled that the town ordinance had violated its residents' First Amendment rights.

Things can even get a little murky in Pennsylvania. In 1988, the Monroeville Police Department worked with a psychic while searching for Sylvester Tonet a missing elderly man. The psychic directed police to his frozen corpse on a wooded hillside. A detective acknowledged he "doesn't like to believe that stuff but had to admit she put us in the area where the body was found."

(Image: Stockbyte/Getty Images)


Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by GateHouse New Service. You can read his musings on the criminal justice system at www.mattmangino.com and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.

To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to socialmedia@post-gazette.com and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.