A 31-year-old Virginia man was arrested on Friday and charged with wearing a mask in public, a felony that’s punishable by up to five years in jail. His crime? Dressing up as the Joker. With makeup.
Winchester police arrested Jeremy Putnam after locals reported sightings of a man dressed as Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight, wearing a black cape and carrying a sword. It’s not illegal in Virginia to open carry a sword, although local ordinances vary, but it is against the law for anyone over 16 to “wear any mask, hood, or other device” that covers part or all of a face (there are exceptions, including holidays like Halloween). The law dates back at least 70 years as an attempt to curtail the Ku Klux Klan. Nowadays, laws like this have been used to profile motorcyclists, charge protesters, and, in this case, stop a guy who’s not even wearing a mask from walking around.
The law has been revised a few times over the past few years, mainly to let people wear balaclavas during cold weather (seriously, you could get arrested for that before), but it’s still used to prosecute people to this day. It’s important to note that Virginia isn’t the only state with anti-mask laws, and given the rise in creepy clown sightings across the country last year, it’s natural that people are still spooked out by weird mask sightings.
However, makeup is not a mask— Putnam’s face is fully visible beneath his white facepaint. Furthermore, he wasn’t breaking into places or stalking people, he was just walking around. Granted, he was carrying a sword, but again... that looks to be permissible in the state. This might be the first time someone’s been charged in the state for the crime of wearing makeup, and if that’s all they’ve got him on, it’s not okay. Given the rise in comic cons in Virginia, this is a red flag for thousands of cosplayers throughout the state. The Winchester Police Department is holding Putnam on a $2,000 secured bond.
Update: Added law exceptions.