Thursday, July 30, 2009

You're probably a (federal) criminal

From an article by Brian Walsh of the Heritage Foundation, on the proliferation of federal criminal laws:
With all the attention that's been paid lately to long federal sentences for drug offenders, it's surprising that a far more troubling phenomenon has barely hit the media's radar screen. Every year, thousands of upstanding, responsible Americans run afoul of some incomprehensible federal law or regulation and end up serving time in federal prison.

What is especially disturbing is that it could happen to anyone at all -- and it has.

We should applaud Reps. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), then, for holding a bipartisan hearing today to examine how federal law can make a criminal out of anyone, for even the most mundane conduct.

Federal law in particular now criminalizes entire categories of activities that the average person would never dream would land him in prison. This is an inevitable result of the fact that the criminal law is no longer restricted to punishing inherently wrongful conduct -- such as murder, rape, robbery, and the like.

Moreover, under these new laws, the government can often secure a conviction without having to prove that the person accused even intended to commit a bad act, historically a protection against wrongful conviction.

Laws like this are dangerous in the hands of social engineers and ambitious lawmakers -- not to mention overzealous prosecutors -- bent on using government's greatest civilian power to punish any activity they dislike. So many thousands of criminal offenses are now in federal law that a prominent federal appeals court judge titled his recent essay on this overcriminalization problem, "You're (Probably) a Federal Criminal." ...

Read the rest here. With the possible exception of large corporations with dedicated legal and regulatory compliance staffs, it's often quite difficult to successfully navigate the morass of all the federal laws and agency regulations. Not to mention all the state laws and regulations. We are truly an over-regulated, and not surprisingly, over-lawyered, society.

In addition, when the ordinary citizen perceives the law's purpose as not to protect (their rights, property, etc.), but rather to punish, the effect is to create an adversarial and distrustful view of the law. And when the law becomes so complex and convoluted that ordinary people cannot decipher its cryptic meaning without hiring a gaggle of lawyers, the populace naturally tends to lose respect for the law -- if you don't know what the law is, and can't figure out what the law is without a lawyer, how can you comply with it?

Indeed, if we're all criminals in the eyes of the law, why bother obeying any law or legal decree, other than the traditional prohibitions against such malum in se acts as murder, rape, robbery, etc.?

The end result of over-reaching federal (and state) criminal laws is distrust and loss of respect for the law, which does not bode well for our Republic.

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