overcriminalization

What You Don’t Know Will Hurt You: Reining in Prosecutorial Overreach with Meaningful Mens Rea Requirements

James Madison presciently warned “it will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood.” Sadly, however, Madison’s admonishment has fallen on deaf ears when it comes to modern statutes and regulations—which in some cases are so numerous and complex that they cannot be deciphered by trained attorneys, much less the general public.

The WellCare Case Provides an Example of Overcriminalization in Action

Overcriminalization is not a myth. Labyrinthine regulations often produce absurd outcomes, including prison sentences for individuals who do everything in their power, including consulting multiple attorneys, to comply with the law before acting.

A recent op-ed in The Washington Times illustrates the point, using a recent Medicaid fraud case that is currently in front of a federal appeals court:

Here’s a quiz: Which of the following is a federal crime: (a) A hamster dealer needlessly tilting a hamster’s cage while in transit; (b) subliminally advertising wine; or (c) selling a fresh steak with paprika on it?

Give up? The answer: all of the above.

Right now, there are approximately 4,500 federal criminal statutes and 300,000 administrative regulations that can be punished with imprisonment — and the list keeps growing. This is an invitation for our government to over-prosecute. Too often, federal prosecutors are accepting that invitation and rejecting more measured and effective administrative and civil remedies.

[…]

In a case that was recently argued before a federal appeals court, executives at WellCare, a managed health care company in Florida, were prosecuted based on their reasonable interpretation of a Florida statute. Federal prosecutors, however, disagreed with the company’s interpretation, even though Florida never issued any regulations contradicting the executives’ reading of the law.

President Obama Announces Drug Sentence Commutations

Today President Obama announced that 46 non-violent drug offenders will have their sentences commuted and be released this year.  The announcement comes ahead of President Obama’s speech on sentencing reform later this week from a prison in Oklahoma.

The vast majority of the offenders were convicted of cocaine offenses, along with a handful of marijuana cases and some general “controlled substance” violations.  The lowest initial sentence among the 46 was 15 years, while several received life sentences.  In issuing the commutations the White House noted that, due to recent sentencing reforms, these sentences are out of step with the sentences the offenders would receive for the same violations today:

These unduly harsh sentences are one of the reasons the President is committed to using all the tools at his disposal to remedy unfairness in our criminal justice system. Today, he is continuing this effort by granting clemency to 46 men and women, nearly all of whom would have already served their time and returned to society if they were convicted of the exact same crime today.

The list of recipients, along with their offenses, can be found here.  

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.

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.”

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