With military precision, the federal officers surrounded the building, donned flak jackets and helmets, readied their weapons, burst in, and forced terrified employees out at gunpoint. Officers ransacked the facility, seizing computers, papers, and materials.
It was the second raid in three years by the Fish and Wildlife Service on Gibson, maker of the famous Les Paul guitar. The situation would be laughable, if the consequences for Gibson weren’t so dire.
The law that Gibson allegedly violated is the Lacey Act, which bars importation of wildlife or plants if it breaks the laws of the country of origin. It was intended to stop poachers. The ebony and rosewood that Gibson imported was harvested legally, and the Indian government approved the shipment of the wood. But Fish and Wildlife bureaucrats claim that, because the wood was not finished by Indian workers, it broke Indian law. In other words, a U.S. agency is enforcing foreign labor laws that the foreign government doesn’t even think were violated.
“In two cases we had a SWAT team, treating us like drug guys, come in and shut us down with no notice,” lamented Gibson chairman and CEO Henry Juszkiewicz. “That’s just wrong. We’re a business. We’re making guitars.” Juszkiewicz says the raid, seizures, and resulting plant closure cost Gibson more than $1 million.
This abusive treatment of a legitimate business like Gibson is not an isolated incident. Small businesses have been similarly raided, and their officers imprisoned, for such minor offenses as importing lobster tails in plastic rather than cardboard (three men were given eight-year prison sentences) and sloppy labeling on imported orchids (the accused was given a 17-month sentence).
The Gibson assaults are further evidence that America’s criminal-justice system has strayed far from its central purpose: stopping the bad guys from harming us. SWAT-team raids were designed to arrest notoriously violent gangsters, and stop them from destroying evidence. Now, the police powers of the state are being used to attack businesses. (Were the feds afraid that the Gibson workers would flush the guitars down the toilet?)
It is time to get the criminal law back to basics. Fighting terrorism, drug cartels, rapists, and murderers is enough to keep law enforcement busy. To expand that fight to include such esoteric social causes as protecting Indian workers dilutes the resources needed to fight real crime. Why do we care who finishes the wood on guitars? And why are we applying the power of the state in its rawest form to enforce Indian labor laws?
Prosecutors who are looking for an easy “win” know that businesses roll over. A public raid on its offices, or an indictment of its officers, can destroy a business’s reputation and viability. That makes the owners easy to intimidate into a plea bargain.
If they choose to fight, they face the full wrath and fury of the feds. In the Gibson raids, the SWAT teams were deployed even though Gibson had offered its full cooperation to investigators. Such raids are increasingly used to intimidate citizens under suspicion. The orchid importer, a 65-year-old with Parkinson’s, was shoved against a wall by armed officers in flak jackets, frisked, and forced into a chair without explanation while his home was searched.
The government also attempts to get low-level employees to “finger” their bosses. For example, the feds threatened Gibson employees with long prison sentences. This is not a search for truth, but an immoral attempt at extortion to win convictions. Investigators examine the lives of “little fish” and use minor, unrelated violations (smoking a joint, or exaggerating income on a loan application) to pressure them to back the government’s case against their employers. Mobsters have experience with threats like this, but a secretary or an accountant is scared to death by the threat of prosecution.
A favorite ploy of prosecutors in these cases is to charge defendants with false statements based on their answers to the investigators. The sentence for this can be five years in prison. No recording is made of the interviews — in fact, the feds prohibit taping the interviews — and the agents are not stenographers. They cannot possibly recall the exact wording of the questions and the answers. Yet after the interview, they will produce a “transcript” replete with quotes throughout. And if a witness says he did not actually say what the agent put in quotes, it is the witness’s word against a fine, upstanding federal agent’s. Staring at a five-year sentence will get most people to say whatever the government wants them to.
The feds also pile up charges. According to Juszkiewicz, the Justice Department warned Gibson that each instance of shipping a guitar from its facility would bring an added charge of obstruction of justice. Prosecutors routinely add extra counts to stack potential prison sentences higher. For instance, faxing invoices for the wood would be charged as wire fraud. Depositing the check for the sale of the guitars would be money laundering. The CEO’s telling the press he is innocent would bring charges of fraud or stock manipulation. The intent is to threaten such long sentences that the targets plead guilty rather than risk decades in prison.
Prosecutors further tighten the screws by seizing the assets of the company, a tactic once used against pirates and drug lords but now routinely used to prosecute white-collar crimes. The federal agents seized six guitars and several pallets of ebony during their initial 2009 raid against Gibson. Federal law allows assets to be seized not just from convicted criminals, but also from those never charged. Owners must prove that the forfeited property was obtained legally; otherwise, the government can keep it. That gives the government incredible leverage, because without the seized inventory and bank accounts, the business will most likely go under. How can Gibson make guitars if the wood is being held by the government? How can it service customers when the government took its computers as evidence? How can it pay lawyers when its bank accounts were seized? Asset forfeitures bring to mind a similar twist on the law uttered by the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland: “Sentence first, verdict afterwards.”
America has become overcriminalized. The Gibson raids highlight how America’s criminal-justice system has become a Rube Goldberg contraption of laws and sentencing policies that have no consistent focus — and there is little relationship between the length of the prison sentence and the harm caused by a violation.
When the Constitution was adopted, there were three federal crimes: treason, piracy, and counterfeiting. Now, there are more federal crimes than we can count — literally. The Congressional Research Service tried to tally the number of crimes sprinkled throughout federal codes, but gave up at 4,450. That does not include more than 10,000 regulations that carry criminal penalties. It’s a wonder anyone can survive 24 hours without violating some obscure statute or rule.
And while Gibson has yet to be formally charged, why would the government choose to pursue the company under criminal laws, seeking to send the officers of the company to prison? The power to imprison is the one of the most severe authorities we cede to government. The lives of incarcerated people are not their own: They cannot choose where to live, with whom to associate, when to eat, or what to do with their time. Because it carries such harsh sanctions, criminal law has always been reserved for morally reprehensible acts such as murder, rape, arson, and robbery.
However, federal bureaucrats no longer feel constrained to limit criminal prosecutions to blameworthy actions that virtually everyone in society would agree are morally wrong. After all, in the age of moral relativism, who is to say what is moral or not? Instead, this moral basis of the law has been cast aside in favor of a broad authority to criminalize conduct that Congress (or, more likely, a mere handful of legislative staffers or agency bureaucrats) decides is “wrong.” Whereas behaviors were once criminal because they were inherently bad, modern law makes certain actions criminal merely because a majority of legislators think they should be prohibited, and criminal sanctions are imposed to make it clear the lawmakers really, really don’t like the conduct.
By unpinning criminal law from its moral roots, we now impose the harshest sentences on activities that are deemed improper by those with the loudest voices. Thus, the lobster fishermen who shipped their catch in the improper containers received longer sentences than some murderers. And Gibson is raided by federal commandos not because the company poses a threat to anyone, but merely because the American government has found it to be in violation of India’s labor laws.
This is government by whim, and these “whim” crimes are not based on evil intent. In fact, they require no intent at all. They are “strict liability” crimes — you don’t have to know you are acting unlawfully to be sent to prison.
The Heritage Foundation points out that “a core principle of the American system of justice is that no one should be subjected to criminal punishment for conduct that he did not know was illegal or otherwise wrongful.” These whim laws have discarded the centuries-old requirement of mens rea, or guilty intent. From today’s perspective, the old adage “ignorance of the law is no excuse” assumes that it is possible to know all the intricacies of tens of thousands of federal statutes and regulations. Nonetheless, if we inadvertently violate one of them, we face years in prison. We are modern Gullivers, tethered to the ground by the sinews of the criminal law.
Fortunately, many are fighting against this distressing trend. Groups as diverse as the Heritage Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, Prison Fellowship, the Cato Institute, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers have joined forces under the leadership of former Attorney General Ed Meese to fight the overcriminalization of America.
Meese is also active in Right on Crime, a group of leading conservatives working to apply free-market, conservative principles to the criminal-justice system. Some of the prominent conservative signatories of the Right on Crime Statement of Principles are Bill Bennett, Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich, Asa Hutchinson, Chuck Colson, and Grover Norquist. We believe that “criminal law should be reserved for conduct that is either blameworthy or threatens public safety, not wielded to grow government and undermine economic freedom.” Congress needs to rein in runaway federal prosecutors who are threatening legitimate businesses. They can start by bringing DOJ officials before a public hearing to inquire into the raids, and ask some questions. What criteria does the DOJ use to send in a SWAT team when a subpoena would suffice? Why is it a priority of U.S. law enforcement to enforce Indian labor laws that India is not enforcing? Why doesn’t federal policy require that interviews be recorded?
Alexis de Tocqueville warned that the greatest danger to a democracy was “soft despotism”:
It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
Congress needs to act quickly before the federal government compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies us. They need to bring our criminal laws back to basics: Get off the backs of businesses and keep us safe from truly dangerous and morally wrongful behavior.
— Pat Nolan is vice president of Prison Fellowship and director of its criminal-justice-reform division, Justice Fellowship.