Law & the Courts

Too Many Laws Means Too Many Criminals

(Juan Moyano/Dreamstime)
When three missing fish can land someone in jail on felony charges, reform is needed.

‘There is no one in the United States over the age of 18 who cannot be indicted for some federal crime,” retired Louisiana State University law professor John Baker told the Wall Street Journal in July 2011. “That is not an exaggeration.”

That may sound unbelievable, but this is a lesson some Americans have, sadly, learned the hard way, through no real fault of their own.

John Yates, for example, built his career as a commercial fisherman. In August 2007, Yates and his crew were fishing in the Gulf of Mexico off the Florida coast when a state conservation officer, who was also a deputized federal agent, boarded his vessel to inspect their catch of red grouper.

After inspecting some 3,000 fish, the official identified 72 red grouper that did not meet the minimum 20-inch conservation standard and issued a citation from the state. He ordered Yates to bring the undersized catch when he returned to port.

When Yates returned to port the next day, armed federal agents stood by while inspectors reexamined his catch, finding only 69 fish under the minimum standard. Federal officials accused Yates of destroying evidence — the missing three red grouper — related to a federal investigation.

“Nearly three years later, the federal government charged me with the destruction of evidence — yes, fish – to impede a federal investigation. I was subsequently arrested at my home. I have been blacklisted by boat owners, who fear federal investigations similar to mine,” Yates wrote last year. “I am now unable to make a living doing what I love to do.”

In August 2011, Yates was convicted and sentenced to a 30-day jail term and three years of supervised release under a provision in the 2002 Sarbanes–Oxley law, passed in the wake of the Enron scandal. The law’s “anti-shredding” provision, meant to apply to the destruction of documents or files related to a federal financial-fraud investigation, has nothing to do with fish.

Thankfully, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed. In February, it threw out the conviction. And although she strangely voted to uphold the conviction, Justice Elena Kagan surmised that Yates’s unusual case “is unfortunately, not an outlier, but an emblem of a deeper pathology in the federal criminal code.”

That “deeper pathology” is overcriminalization.

In Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, Doctor Floyd Ferris, one of the book’s main antagonists, told Hank Reardon, a proud producer who had earned the ire of crony special interests and government officials, that “there’s no way to rule innocent men.”

“The only power government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them,” said Ferris. “One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.”

Fiction has become reality.

The United States now has some 300,000 federal regulations, and this long spool of burdensome and complex red tape grows every year. What’s more, there are about 4,500 federal criminal statutes on the books carrying fines or prison terms for offenders.

There are so many regulations and criminal statutes on the books that a civil-liberties expert and lawyer, Harvey Silverglate, thinks that the average American commits three felonies a day, and they often are not even aware they are breaking the law. That is, not until a federal agency begins an investigation and they are indicted.

House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.) is taking a hard look at federal overcriminalization. At a recent criminal-justice event supported by the Coalition for Public Safety, Representative Goodlatte, in a video message, told attendees, “There is a growing consensus across the political spectrum that our criminal-justice system is in need of reform.”

“The issue of overcriminalization is an issue of liberty,” Goodlatte said. “We must work together to improve our criminal-justice system so that it works fairly and efficiently and reduces crime across the United States.”

Goodlatte, in the previous Congress, put together a bipartisan overcriminalization task force, led by Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations Subcommittee chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R., Wis.) and ranking member Bobby Scott (D., Va.), to examine federal criminal laws and make recommendations for reform. The task force held ten hearings.

A civil-liberties expert and lawyer thinks the average American commits three felonies a day, often without knowing that he is breaking the law.

Although similar efforts have failed in the past, this is a cause around which both parties should come together. Our prisons are overcrowded, with far too many nonviolent offenders who have little or no criminal history taking up space that should be reserved for more serious and violent criminals.

Tackling overcriminalization could help reduce skyrocketing prison costs, restrain the out-of-control regulatory state, and end families’ being needlessly ripped apart by unnecessary, out-of-date, or excessive federal statutes.

Most importantly, Goodlatte is right: This is an issue of liberty. Not only would rolling back this brand of big government send a positive message to the country; addressing overcriminalization in a meaningful and substantive way is simply the right thing to do.

— Timothy Head is the executive director of the Faith & Freedom Coalition. Matt Kibbe is the president of FreedomWorks and author of the New York Times best-seller Don’t Hurt People and Don’t Take Their Stuff. Both are members of The Coalition for Public Safety.

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