For those unfamiliar with Burning Man, it is a gathering in “Black Rock City” in the middle of the Nevada desert. The event focuses on fostering principals of love, creativity, self-reliance, community, and being in the moment. As such, it is hard to imagine that the long-arm of the law has anything to do with the event.
However, as a 5-square-mile pop-up metropolis, law enforcement is absolutely, and understandably, present. Moreover, the land where Burning Man awakens every year is federally owned, meaning the event and event-goers (“Burners”) are subject to both federal and state law.
What Is the Law of Burning Man?
It’s important to mention that the law governing this five-day (up to ten-day, for some) desert soirée is incredibly vast. From a Burner’s perspective, the law of Burning Man is likely akin to “be nice, be safe, have fun.”
However, from the perspective of the Federal Bureau of Land Management, Nevada Highway Patrol, and a handful of Nevada Sheriff’s Officers and law enforcement bodies, the law is the black letter, on-the-books law of the Nevada, and, to top it off, any applicable federal law.
Here’s a simple breakdown of relevant criminal laws that may affect Burners:
- Speeding – While entering the event, the speed is a strict 10 m.p.h., and while in Black Rock City, the speed is 5 m.p.h. While Burner’s are generally strictly prohibited from driving once they arrive at their campsite, arriving at and leaving from could land speeders with a hefty moving violation.
- DUI – Similarly, driving under the influence is just as serious of an offense in Black Rock City as it is anywhere else in the country. Again, while Burner’s are typically not driving around during the festival, it’s possible to get a vehicle permitted to do so. Additionally, certain types of vehicles, such as electric bicycles or other devices that are not solely human powered may fall within the ambit of Nevada’s DUI laws.
- Contraband – This is potentially the biggest overlap with federal law the event faces, and consequently the one with the most potential for serious legal issues. Since the event is on federal land, and marijuana is illegal under federal law, any marijuana—even medicinal marijuana—is strictly forbidden.
It’s also worth noting that dog sniffs of vehicles do not constitute a search. There is an argument to be made that a camp has a higher expectation of privacy; however, that argument wouldn’t have an audience until after a search based on probable cause and potential arrest, thus ruining an otherwise fun party.
How Else Could the Law Affect the Party?
Wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits all have a quiet potential at Burning Man. Sadly, this year a young woman was killed by a bus transporting participants. This is the first tragedy of this sort in 7 years, but it is a universal truth that accidents happen. Additionally, the back of the Burning Man ticket may attempt to waive liability for such accidents.
However, courts frequently disregard such waivers. Meaning quite simply that if the surviving family is so inclined, they may be entitled to seek compensation for their untimely loss.
Is Burning Man Just Filled with Eager Police?
Each year, there is roughly 1 police officer per 1,000 participants. While that seems low, consider that New York City has roughly 4 police officers per 1,000 residents. And, remembering that New York City is a city of over 8,000,000 compared to Burning Man’s 50,000-70,000, that figure becomes pretty staggering.
Still, arrests are rare for an event of this size and duration. From 2010 to 2013, only 38 participants were arrested of the 227,248 who attended. However, drug citations are remarkably higher, creeping in at just under 1,000 issued during that same time frame.
These numbers provide a pretty clear message: come for the fun, but if you break the law or bring drugs, don’t be surprised if you get burned.