Opinion: You Might Be Committing a Federal Crime

Friday, December 17, 2010

(Dec. 17) -- Here's one proposition not up for partisan debate: America is woefully overcriminalized, and the criminal law is woefully overfederalized.

Today there are nearly 4,500 federal criminal laws on the books, and most of them have been added in just the last few decades.

A groundbreaking, nonpartisan study conducted this year by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Heritage Foundation revealed that many of these laws lack even the most basic protection: an adequate criminal intent requirement. That means Americans can be convicted and thrown in prison for doing something -- actually, one of thousands of seemingly innocuous things -- they had no idea was against the law.

This overcriminalization has real-world consequences. Throwing in prison people who didn't intend to break the law, or who violated laws that shouldn't be crimes in the first place, imposes an unnecessary burden on taxpayers to pay for their senseless incarceration. This would never be a good use of taxpayers' funds, and it makes even less sense given our current staggering deficits.

Then there are the impacts on individuals and businesses, which are challenged every day to try to figure out what conduct is legal, what is punishable criminally and what some of these laws even mean. Their liberty and their property are at stake. Is this the American way?

This fall, the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security held a hearing, to a standing-room-only crowd, exploring the problem of overcriminalization and possible solutions. Ranking member Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, was visibly moved by the compelling testimony of expert witnesses and actual victims who relayed horrific stories of lost property -- and years spent in jail -- for completely innocuous actions they had no way of knowing were illegal.

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