In these days of lawlessness and rampant street crime, it's nice to know that at least one federal law is strictly enforced -- the unauthorized wearing of a U.S. Forest Service hat.

Merrion T. Eaves of Reno, Nev., can testify to that. His hat was grabbed by the long arm of the Forest Service.

Eaves was playing dollar slot machines in a Reno casino last summer when a man approached him and asked, "Do you work for the U.S. Forest Service?"

Eaves doesn't, but his hat bore an emblem that looked like a Forest Service logo. Eaves got the hat as a gift from his boss, a hat collector of sorts, and he liked it.

But the man who approached him didn't. He was an area special agent from the Toiyabe National Forest headquartered in Sparks, Nev., and was attending a convention in the hotel where Eaves was gambling. The agent told Eaves he was breaking the law by wearing the Forest Service emblem and that he could go to jail if he didn't surrender the hat.

The agent was telling the truth. Title 18 of the U.S. Code makes it illegal for unauthorized persons to "possess any insignia of the design prescribed by the head of any department or agency of the United States." The offense is punishable by a fine of $250 and six months in jail.

Eaves, a reasonable guy, didn't want to go to jail for a hat, so he turned it over to the agent and went back to playing the slots. But the agent wasn't finished. He asked Eaves where he got the cap, why he was wearing it and whether he had any other items of clothing with a Forest Service emblem.

When the interrogation was over, the agent left with the hat. In a few minutes he was back at Eaves's side with an apology, and the hat. He had thought it over and decided that the hat was not contraband because it was only a knockoff, not the real thing. "As far as I can tell, wearing a facsimile of the emblem is okay," the agent said.

Eaves knew when to hold 'em, and when to fold 'em. He accepted his hat and got out of there.

The agent had another change of heart, and no sooner had Eaves arrived home than there was a knock on his door. It was the agent in hot pursuit, and he wanted the hat back again. "I made a mistake," he said. "The rule says you can't wear 'any likeness thereof.' "

Eaves handed over the hat again. But after a few months, the incident began to grate on him, and he wrote to us to see if we could help get his hat back.

A spokesman for the Toiyabe National Forest told our reporter Paul Parkinson that the agent was just doing his job. "Reno is a Forest Service town. We try to keep a white-hat image around here," staff officer David Haney said. "And gambling is no way to do it." Evidently the Forest Service can't afford to have people thinking its agents are sitting around, in uniform, playing the slots. Haney said foresters are good guys. "We do not specialize in being officious bureaucrats here, even though this smacks of it."

The cap caper is far from over. The Forest Service insists it will keep the hat. After all, Title 18 gives the government that right. Meanwhile, the banned hat is collecting dust on a shelf in a federal warehouse in San Diego.