Fortuneteller can continue getting paid to gaze into the future, Maryland court rules

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2010

Perhaps Nick Nefedro saw into the future and knew all along that the law was on his side.

The self-described gypsy, who reveals snippets of things to come by telling fortunes and reading palms, can try to make a living from his craft in Montgomery County, Maryland's highest court ruled Thursday.

The court didn't vouch for the reliability of fortunetellers but said that they have the right to share insights they glean from tarot cards, tea leaves or the stars. Montgomery's effort to ban paid fortunetelling, the court ruled, violates the constitutional right to free speech.

"Fortunetelling may be pure entertainment, it may give individuals some insight into the future or it may be hokum," the Maryland Court of Appeals wrote in a 24-page opinion. "People who purchase fortunetelling services may or may not believe in its value. Fortunetellers may sometimes deceive their customers. We need not, however, pass judgment on the validity or the value of the speech that fortunetelling entails."

It all started when Nefedro, who operated fortunetelling businesses in Florida and California, decided to set up shop in Montgomery, where he spent much of his youth. He said he leased property in Bethesda, paid rent, bought furnishings and posted a sign outside to announce that the business would open soon. But when he tried to get a business license in 2008, Nefedro said, he was told that the county would not allow it.

Montgomery, he learned, had an ordinance that banned "remuneration or gratuity for forecasting or foretelling or for pretending to forecast or foretell the future by cards, palm reading or any other scheme."

County spokesman Patrick Lacefield said that Montgomery never had anything against fortunetelling for free. The ordinance, he said, dates to the 1970s and was intended to stop scammers.

Nefedro challenged the law in court. And although the Circuit Court sided with the county, the higher court brought a reversal of fortune.

Nefedro, who now sells cars in New York, couldn't be reached for comment. But his attorney, Ajmel Quereshi of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that Nefedro wants to return to the Washington area and open for business.

"His exact words were 'fantastic,' " Quereshi said.

Nefedro followed in the footsteps of his father, who was a fortuneteller in the District in the 1980s. Quereshi said that Nefedro contends that his craft, and his fortunes, are legitimate.

"He definitely believes part of his cultural heritage is the ability to foresee the future, or at least have inklings about what the future holds," Quereshi said.

The Court of Appeals didn't go that far, but it did reject the county's argument that fortunetelling is "inherently fraudulent" and that it doesn't amount to protected speech. The judges made their point in a bit of a jab at two professions that are more common in the Washington region.

"While we recognize that some fortunetellers may make fraudulent statements, just as some lawyers or journalists may, we see nothing in the record to suggest that fortunetelling always involves fraudulent statements," the court wrote.

What will happen next?

"I don't have a crystal ball, so I don't know if we are going to appeal or not," Lacefield said. "I don't know if it's in the cards."

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