Tag: three felonies a day

The Minefield of American Criminal Law

Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal ran an excellent article about the problem of overcriminalization—the proliferation of criminal laws and how more and more people can find themselves on the wrong side the law without even realizing it. Here’s an excerpt:

In 2009, Mr. Anderson loaned his son some tools to dig for arrowheads near a favorite campground of theirs. Unfortunately, they were on federal land. Authorities “notified me to get a lawyer and a damn good one,” Mr. Anderson recalls.

There is no evidence the Andersons intended to break the law, or even knew the law existed, according to court records and interviews. But the law, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, doesn’t require criminal intent and makes it a felony punishable by up to two years in prison to attempt to take artifacts off federal land without a permit.

Read the whole thing.

It’s great that this phenomenon is getting more attention. Too many people in Washington seem to think that the more laws Congress enacts, the better the job performance of the policymakers. That’s twisted. Before an elected official can take any action whatsoever, he or she must first take an oath to uphold and preserve the Constitution—and the role of the federal government in the criminal area is supposed to be quite limited. I testified before a congressional committee two summers ago on this subject. And Judge Alex Kozinski, quoted in the WSJ article above, has a terrific essay in my book, In the Name of Justice, about the score of federal criminal laws now on the books. And Cato adjunct scholar Harvey Silverglate authored a fine book on the problem, called Three Felonies a Day. More here (pdf) and here.

Department of Education SWAT Raid for Unpaid Student Loans

Department of Education officers employed a SWAT team because of unpaid student loans. I am not making this up:

Kenneth Wright does not have a criminal record and he had no reason to believe a S.W.A.T team would be breaking down his door at 6 a.m. on Tuesday…

As it turned out, the person law enforcement was looking for was not there - Wright’s estranged wife.

“They put me in handcuffs in that hot patrol car for six hours, traumatizing my kids,” Wright said.

Wright said he later went to the mayor and Stockton Police Department, but the City of Stockton had nothing to do with Wright’s search warrant.

The U.S. Department of Education issued the search and called in the S.W.A.T for his wife’s defaulted student loans.

This, along with the Jose Guerena case, demonstrates how the militarization of police terminology and tactics is incompatible with a free society. Police officers aren’t “operators” like Green Berets or Navy SEALs.

This is just one more reason to abolish the Department of Education and oppose police militarization and federal overcriminalization.

Overcriminalization Incentives

In my post on Brian Aitken’s plight, I discussed New Jersey’s draconian gun laws and how a law-abiding citizen can become a victim of overbroad laws. New Jersey gun laws weren’t always so bad, but overcriminalization warped them into their current unconstitutional state.

This trend is a staple of modern legislative activity. Every time a politician says that we must pass a new law to “get tough on crime” and that their pet legislation ought to be passed “for the children,” it’s a sure indicator that the rule of law is about to take another body blow. Take, for instance, the crusade against sexting that threatens to make foolish teenagers into sex offenders. Or the proposed federal cyberbullying act, which aims to turn teens into federal felons, in spite of the fact that there is no federal juvenile justice system. New Jersey gun laws jumped the shark a long time ago and haven’t looked back.

The same is true with federal “honest services” fraud. In the words of one former lawmaker who fed the overcriminalization beast only to see it turn on him:

When I served in Congress, I vigorously opposed any expansion of federal agency authority. All too often, however, I exempted the Justice Department from my efforts because I wanted to give law enforcement the power it needed to keep our country safe from dangerous individuals. After enduring a years-long investigation into crimes my wife and I did not commit, and after watching the outrageous prosecution of Kevin Ring, I have serious doubts about whether I was wise to faithfully support the Justice Department. I strongly encourage the new Congress to examine the guidance and leeway the Department gives to federal prosecutors, and to refrain from passing any new vague criminal laws which seem to invite the worst prosecutorial abuse.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. For more on overcriminalization, take a look at Tim Lynch’s book, In the Name of Justice, or Harvey Silverglate’s Three Felonies a Day.

Prosecutorial Misconduct

A federal prosecutor’s misconduct tilted the scales of justice against Antonio Lyons, an Orlando businessman. Lyons served three years in prison before his attorney discovered statements from a witness that differed from the testimony given at trial. That was just the tip of the iceberg.

For more than a week in 2001, the jurors listened to one witness after another, almost all of them prison inmates, describe how Lyons had sold them packages of cocaine. One said that Lyons, who ran clothing shops and nightclubs around Orlando, tried to hire him to kill two drug dealers.

But the federal prosecutors handling the case did not let the jury hear all the facts.

Instead, the prosecutors covered up evidence that could have discredited many of Lyons’ accusers. They never disclosed that a convict who claimed to have purchased hundreds of pounds of cocaine from Lyons struggled to identify his photograph. And they hid the fact that prosecutors had promised to let others out of prison early in exchange for their cooperation.

An investigative project by USA Today documented 201 cases from across the nation in which federal judges found that prosecutors broke the rules. It includes a database and interactive map chronicling prosecutorial misconduct. Read the whole thing.

Check out Tim Lynch’s In the Name of Justice: Leading Experts Reexamine the Classic Article “The Aims of the Criminal Law” and Harvey Silverglate’s Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent for more on the criminal justice system.

One Nation Under Arrest

Brian Walsh of The Heritage Foundation and Paul Rosenzweig have a new book out, One Nation Under Arrest: How Crazy Laws, Rogue Prosecutors, and Activist Judges Threaten Your Liberty.

For an example of how our federal criminal laws have morphed into a leviathan that threatens the liberty of average citizens, take the case of inventor and entrepreneur Krister Evertson:

In May 2004, FBI agents driving a black Suburban and wearing SWAT gear ran Evertson off the road near his mother’s home in Wasilla, Alaska. When Evertson was face down on the pavement with automatic weapons trained on him, an FBI agent told him he was being arrested because he hadn’t put a federally mandated sticker on a UPS package.

A jury in federal court in Alaska acquitted Evertson, but the feds weren’t finished. They reached into their bag of over 4,500 federal crimes and found another ridiculous crime they could use to prosecute him: supposedly “abandoning” hazardous waste (actually storing, in appropriate containers, valuable materials he was using for the clean-fuel technology he was developing). A second jury convicted him, and he spent 21 months in an Oregon federal prison.

Draconian enforcement of regulatory offenses is just the tip of the iceberg. For additional information on the creep of federal criminal law, check out In the Name of Justice: Leading Experts Reexamine the Classic Article “The Aims of the Criminal Law” by Tim Lynch, Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent by Harvey Silverglate, and Go Directly to Jail: The Criminalization of Almost Everything by Gene Healy.

A Civil Liberties Roundup

Here are some interesting new items on the web:

  • Cato Senior Fellow Nat Hentoff is interviewed by John W. Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute.  Nat says “Obama has little, if any, principles except to aggrandize and make himself more and more important.”  And “Obama is possibly the most dangerous and destructive president we have ever had.”  Go here for the full interview.
  • Cato adjunct scholar Harvey Silverglate is blogging this week over at the Volokh Conspiracy on his new book, Three Felonies a Day.
  •  Cato Adjunct Scholar Marie Gryphon, who is also a Senior Fellow with the Manhattan Institute, has just put out a new paper, It’s a Crime: Flaws in Federal Statutes That Punish Regular Businesspeople.
  • Cato Media Fellow Radley Balko takes a look at the pathetic machinations in the Chicago Police Department.  Reminds me of the proud boast from a patronage worker in the political machine: “Chicago ain’t ready for reform!”

Good stuff here.  For more Cato scholarship, go here.

Are You a Criminal? Maybe You Are and Don’t Know It

Yesterday, Michael Dreeben, the attorney representing the U.S. government, tried to defend the controversial “honest services” statute from a constitutional challenge in front of the Supreme Court.  When Dreeben informed the Court that the feds have essentially criminalized any ethical lapse in the workplace, Justice Breyer exclaimed,

[T]here are 150 million workers in the United States.  I think possibly 140 [million] of them flunk your test.

There it is.  Some of us have been trying to draw more attention to the dangerous trend of overcriminalization.  Judge Alex Kozinski co-authored an article in my book entitled “You’re (Probably) a Federal Criminal.”  And Cato adjunct scholar, Harvey Silverglate, calls his new book, Three Felonies a Day to stress the fact that the average professional unknowingly violates the federal criminal law several times each day (at least in the opinion of federal prosecutors).  Not many people want to discuss that pernicious reality. To the extent defenders of big government address the problem at all, they’ve tried to write it all off as the rhetoric of a few libertarian lawyers.  Given yesterday’s back-and-forth at the High Court, it is going to be much much harder to make that sort of claim.

For more on this subject, go here, here,  and here.