Tag: overcriminalization

Fifth Time’s a Charm? Why the Court Should Strike Down the Armed Career Criminal Act as Unconstitutionally Vague

The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) increases the minimum criminal penalty for defendants convicted of illegal firearm possession who also have three prior violent crime convictions. While the Act lists many crimes as qualifying as “violent”—such as burglary, arson, and extortion—it also contains a catch-all provision, a “residual clause,” that includes crimes that “otherwise involve conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”

While that language may seem clear, its precise meaning has bedeviled courts for decades. In fact, Johnson v. United States represents the fifth time since 2007 that the Supreme Court has been asked to clarify what the residual clause means. For example, does drunk driving count? How about fleeing from officers in a high-speed chase? Even though the high court only hears about 75 cases per year—and it rarely revisits a law within such a short time-span—the ACCA’s residual clause keeps coming back. As Justice Antonin Scalia quipped in the last such case, “We try to include an ACCA residual-clause case in about every second or third volume of the United States Reports.” Justice Scalia’s comment came in a dissent in which he argued that the residual clause is unconstitutionally vague, and it seems that the rest of his colleagues paid attention. This is the second time this term that this case will be argued before the Court.

Last November, the issue was whether merely (illegally) possessing a short-barreled shotgun is a crime that fits into the residual clause. In January, however, the Court ordered that the case be re-argued on the larger question of whether the residual clause is itself unconstitutionally vague. Apparently, in discussing the law for the fifth time, the justices got tired of trying to answer questions that Congress should have addressed by writing a clearer law.

Bipartisanship at Its Finest

“Bipartisanship” sounds like a good idea in theory, but it usually ends up as broad congressional agreement that the American people have too many liberties or too much money. However, there is one area in which there is a growing bipartisan effort toward increased individual liberty: fighting overcriminalization.

Today, the House Judiciary Committee’s Overcriminalization Task Force held its second hearing, in which members of Congress asked two leading legal experts about the importance of restoring some sanity to federal law. Specifically, this hearing focused on the lack of mens rea—that is, criminal intent—in many federal criminal prosecutions. Put simply, as the law stands, an American can unknowingly and accidentally break federal law yet still be held criminally liable for felonies in federal courts. The conduct that leads to these prosecutions is often not serious, and sometimes nothing more than an administrative mistake. Other times, these offenses are simply the result of overzealous federal prosecutors stretching the limits of broad statutory or regulatory language to pad their conviction totals without much effort or expenditure. Yet these seemingly harmless acts can trigger prosecutions that can cost families their livelihoods or even land innocent people in federal prison.

The abuse of the law is so clear that, throughout the hearing that lasted just over an hour, 10 members of Congress and two witnesses—Norman Reimer of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and law professor John Baker—found very little about which to disagree. You can watch the very heartening and informative hearing here (action begins at the 19:00 minute mark, just after 9:03AM), via the Library of Congress on USTREAM.

For a primer on overcriminalization, I highly recommend Cato’s new video with Families Against Mandatory Minimums’ Molly Gill:

For more Cato on overcriminalization, see here and here.

George Will: We Need More Justice in Our ‘Justice System’

George Will’s latest column is a scathing attack on explosive growth in the federal criminal code, mandatory minimum sentencing, and plea bargaining. Here is an excerpt:

The House Judiciary Committee has created an Over-Criminalization Task Force. Its members should read “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent,” by Harvey Silverglate, a libertarian lawyer whose book argues that prosecutors could indict most of us for three felonies a day. And the task force should read the short essay “Ham Sandwich Nation: Due Process When Everything Is a Crime” by Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a professor of law at the University of Tennessee. Given the axiom that a competent prosecutor can persuade a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich, and given the reality of prosecutorial abuse — particularly, compelling plea bargains by overcharging with “kitchen sink” indictments — Reynolds believes “the decision to charge a person criminally should itself undergo some degree of due process scrutiny.”

He also suggests banning plea bargains: “An understanding that every criminal charge filed would have to be either backed up in open court or ignominiously dropped would significantly reduce the incentive to overcharge. . . . Our criminal justice system, as presently practiced, is basically a plea-bargain system with actual trials of guilt or innocence a bit of showy froth floating on top.”

U.S. prosecutors win more than 90 percent of their cases, 97 percent of those without complete trials. British and Canadian prosecutors win significantly less, and for many offenses, the sentences in those nations are less severe.

Making mandatory minimums less severe would lessen the power of prosecutors to pressure defendants by overcharging them in order to expose them to draconian penalties. The Leahy-Paul measure is a way to begin reforming a criminal justice system in which justice is a diminishing component.

Good stuff. For related Cato scholarship, go here, here, and here.

Congress Looks at Overcriminalization

The House Judiciary Committee has created a task force to address the problem of overcriminalization. 

Here are some statements from the news release:

Chairman Goodlatte:  “Over-criminalization is an issue of liberty.  As federal criminal laws and regulations have increased, so has the number of Americans who have found themselves breaking the law with no intent of doing so. Americans who make innocent mistakes should not be charged with criminal offenses.   We need to take a closer look at our laws and regulations to make sure that they protect freedom, work as efficiently and fairly as possible, and do not duplicate state efforts.  I am hopeful that the bipartisan task force established today will be able to reach consensus and make recommendations to the House Judiciary Committee on how to improve our federal criminal statutes and protect our freedom.”

Ranking Member Conyers:  “Unduly expansive criminal provisions in our law unnecessarily drive up incarceration rates. Almost one-quarter of the world’s inmates are locked up in the United States, yet Americans constitute only 5 percent of the world population. In addition, the incarceration rate for African Americans is six times that of the national incarceration average. I welcome the work of the over-criminalization task force in analyzing this serious issue.”

Crime Subcommittee Chairman Sensenbrenner: “Our current criminal code is riddled with outdated provisions, inconsistent with modifications made to reflect America’s contemporary approach to criminal law. This bipartisan task force will review federal laws in Title 18 and work to clean it up. Congress must ensure the federal role in criminal prosecutions is properly limited to offenses within federal jurisdiction and within the scope of constitutionally-delegated federal powers. I also plan to reintroduce the Criminal Code Modernization and Simplification Act which reforms and recodifies Title 18 of the U.S. Code. This bill cuts more than one-third of the existing criminal code, consolidates criminal offenses from other titles, and streamlines the code to make it more coherent for attorneys, judges, and Congress.”  

Crime Subcommittee Ranking Member Scott:  “Although crime is primarily a matter for states and localities to handle, over the last 40 or so years Congress has increasingly sought to address societal problems by adding criminal provisions to the federal code.  There are now over 4,000 federal criminal provisions, plus hundreds of thousands of federal regulations which impose criminal penalties, often without requiring that criminal intent be shown to establish guilt.  As a result, we are hearing many complaints of overuse and abusive uses of federal criminal laws from a broad-based coalition of organizations ranging from the Heritage Foundation to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.  Today, we are establishing a bipartisan task force on over-criminalization to assess issues and make recommendations for improvements to the federal criminal system, and I look forward to working with my colleagues on this worthy endeavor.”

I testified before the Committee on this subject about a year ago. Good to see some action on this front.

Not Everything Can Be a Federal Crime

Cato legal associate Carl DeNigris co-authored this blogpost.

Over the last few decades, the number of federal crimes has exploded. The U.S. criminal code has grown so large and so expansive that no one is exactly sure how many federal crimes are actually on the books, with estimates ranging from 4,000 to 300,000. As Justice Scalia has noted, “It should be no surprise that as the volume increases, so do the number of imprecise laws.”

Many individuals and organizations from across the ideological spectrum have voiced concern over this growing trend, recognizing that broadly defined crimes lack the clarity traditionally required before depriving citizens of their liberty.

The expansion of 18 U.S.C § 1001, which criminalizes the knowing and willful making of materially false statements in “any matter within the jurisdiction of” the United States, exemplifies this broadening scope. Cory King was prosecuted under this statute for making a false statement to a state official wholly unconnected to any federal agency or investigation. Yet, the Ninth Circuit held that Mr. King violated § 1001 because the subject matter of his statement was one over which a federal government agency possessed regulatory authority.

King has now asked the Supreme Court to hear his case. Cato has joined the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Texas Public Policy Foundation on a brief supporting him and arguing that the Ninth Circuit stretched § 1001 beyond its proper jurisdictional reach. Such an unbounded interpretation risks greater over criminalization and further misuse of the federal criminal code.

Moreover, since § 1001 is a “process crime” that focuses on offenses “not against the particular person or property, but against the machinery of justice itself,” an excessively broad construction would undermine the integrity of the criminal justice system. Wider application of such crimes facilitates pretextual prosecutions, in which “the operating philosophy seems to be that, if the government cannot prosecute what it wished to penalize, it will penalize what it can prosecute.”

Such an arbitrary and far-reaching application of the criminal code – the federal criminal code, at that – has no place in a free society.

The Court will decide whether to take up King v. United States sometime this spring.

Feds Take in Billions with Forfeiture Powers

Today’s Wall Street Journal has part 2 of its critical look at the powers of federal law enforcement agencies and the focus of this article is on the power to seize cash, cars, homes, and other assets from people who have not been convicted of a crime.  It’s called “civil asset forfeiture”  because there is no criminal prosecution.  Here’s an excerpt (subscription only):

New York businessman James Lieto was an innocent bystander in a fraud investigation last year. Federal agents seized $392,000 of his cash anyway.

An armored-car firm hired by Mr. Lieto to carry money for his check-cashing company got ensnared in the FBI probe. Agents seized about $19 million—including Mr. Lieto’s money—from vaults belonging to the armored-car firm’s parent company.

He is one among thousands of Americans in recent decades who have had a jarring introduction to the federal system of asset seizure. Some 400 federal statutes—a near-doubling, by one count, since the 1990s—empower the government to take assets from convicted criminals as well as people never charged with a crime.

Last year, forfeiture programs confiscated homes, cars, boats, and cash in more than 15,000 cases.  The total take topped $2.5 billion, more than doubling in five years, Justice Department statistics show.

The expansion of forfeiture powers is part of a broader growth in recent decades of the federal justice system that has seen hundreds of new criminal laws passed.  Some critics have dubbed the pattern as the overcriminalization of American life.

Last year, Cato hosted an event on the problem of forfeiture law and before that published numerous books and studies and articles.  It’s nice to see the Wall Street Journal highlighting this problem for its readership.

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