Most people believe that knowing their rights and respecting the rights of others is pretty much good enough to stay clear of legal trouble. The problem today is the growing number of federal criminal laws and regulations. They ensnare many law-abiding citizens who have no criminal intent, yet threaten them with arrest, prosecution, and prison time.
To be clear, we’re talking about innocent citizens who broke an obscure law or regulation they didn’t know existed and face the nightmare of federal prosecution to defend their honor.
Retired race-car champion Bobby Unser told a congressional hearing how he got lost in a blizzard on his snowmobile and got a $75 fine, plus a criminal record! The crime? He drove onto protected federal land, an automatic violation of the Wilderness Act. An honest mistake that left him with a misdemeanor conviction.
“There is no one in the United States over the age of 18 who cannot be indicted for some federal crime,” said retired Louisiana State University law professor John Baker in a Wall Street Journal report. “That is not an exaggeration.”
“Most people think criminal law is for bad people,” says Timothy Lynch of the Cato Institute. “They’re one misstep away from the nightmare of a federal indictment.”
Awareness of this issue is the first step you need to protect yourself and lower your chances of falling victim.
What’s the Problem
with Law Enforcement?
We are seeing this more and more: The shocking growth of entangling laws and regulation is tripping up honest Americans. Several thousand federal criminal statues exist nowadays. For historical comparison, back in 1790 only six existed: treason, counterfeiting, piracy, as well as murder, maiming, and robbery in federal jurisdictions.
Today scholars from university studies, to the Justice Department, to the American Bar Association don’t know how many of these laws exist. It’s believed to be far greater than 4,500. It’s too numerous to count and these statutes are peppered throughout 27,000 pages of the federal code.
Adding to this problem, many new federal laws have lower standards for conviction than in the past: Prosecutors do not always need to show criminal intent (mens rea), according the Wall Street Journal. And, federal regulations (also numbering in the thousands) often carry the force of federal criminal law as penalty.
Many pundits, like the Blaze’s Buck Sexton, feel this gives federal agencies too much power. To justify their budgets, they need something to show, which encourages abuse… hammers in search of nails.
You Be the Judge
- Well-known marine biologist Nancy Black had a federal government permit to conduct killer whale eating habits research. While in a “protected ocean sanctuary” she scooted her boat closer to floating blubber that was already in the ocean so she could better film the whales eating it.
For that incident the feds arrested her and accused her of abusing killer whales and breaking the Marine Mammal Protection Act. If convicted, she would face 20 years in prison and half a million dollars in fines.
- Mr. Anderson and his son were at their favorite campground. His son went to look for arrowheads, they didn’t find any, but both got arrested for breaking the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979.
According to court records there was no evidence they intended to break the law, or knew it existed. No matter, this law doesn’t require criminal intent, yet it charges you with a felony and two years in prison for attempting to take artifacts off federal land without a permit. They pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and got probation and a $3,000 penalty.
- Mr. Abner Schoenwetter finished almost six years in federal prison for conspiracy and smuggling. What did he do? He broke a silly law from a foreign country.
He imported the wrong sized lobsters and packaged them incorrectly, in violation of Honduran laws. This also violated the Lacey Act, which makes it a felony to import fish or wildlife if it breaks another country’s laws. The rub is that he’d been importing lobster like this for years and never had any trouble before.
The Honduran government filed a brief on his behalf, but a U.S. appellate panel upheld the convictions anyway.
Innocents between a Rock and a Hard Place…
Many of the cases above, and the dozens more that don’t fit in this email, could be fought and won to uphold justice, common sense, and defend the honor of innocent men and women.
In reality, when the machine of federal indictment comes after normal people, they make a quick calculation: Potentially spend years in prison while bankrupting themselves to fight for their innocence, or plead guilty to a lesser charge and get probation. Many opt for the latter so they can get on with their lives.
This leaves them tainted with a criminal record for life. If they ever have another run in with the law, it’s going to be hard to believe their side of the story because of the rap sheet.
As Winston Churchill said, “If you have ten thousand regulations, you lose all respect for the law.“