Unlawful Versus Illegal

Today’s topic is illegal versus unlawful.

Michael W. Flynn
3-minute read

Legal Lad:

Black’s Law Dictionary defines unlawful as not authorized by law, illegal. Illegal is defined as forbidden by law, unlawful. Semantically, there is a slight difference. It seems that something illegal is expressly proscribed by statute, and something unlawful is just not expressly authorized.

Jaywalking is a good example of an unlawful act. Traffic regulations do not typically say that you cannot walk diagonally through an intersection. So, it is not illegal. Rather, traffic regulations typically provide that you can cross within a crosswalk when the little walky-man appears. Crossing in any other way is unlawful because it is not expressly permitted.

Selling cocaine is a good example of an illegal act. A federal law specifically provides that you may not do so.

With regard to Jed’s question, it would depend on point of view. On one hand, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, aka Metro, issued a rule that prohibits eating or drinking while riding on a public bus. So, the act is expressly proscribed, and thus illegal.

On the other hand, Metro is not a legislative body and does not pass laws in the traditional sense. Rather, it was a body created by an Interstate Compact in 1967. Part of the compact was that Metro could create rules to ensure safe and comfortable transportation for the public, and Metro used that authority to make a rule against eating or drinking. But, the compact, the actual law, does not say anything about food; it only says that the agency could create rules for safe travel. Thus, eating and drinking is simply not permitted, and thus unlawful.