Thursday, June 30, 2011

How Many Federal Crimes Did You Commit Today?

I've said before that around 1985 I had to take an EPA hazardous waste class for work, and even then the instructor piled about a two foot tall stack of regulations on the table and said, "what do you think the chances are that you haven't violated one sentence in these?"   Today, that stack would probably go ceiling to floor for those regulations alone.

Harvey Silvergate at Reason Magazine says, if you're the average American, you've violated three federal laws today.  
... far too many federal laws leave citizens unsure about the line between legal and illegal conduct, punishing incorrect guesses with imprisonment. The average working American adult, going about his or her normal life, commits several arguable federal felonies a day without even realizing it. Entire lives can change based on the attention of a creative federal prosecutor interpreting vague criminal laws.
A shining example of the sort of accidental violation of laws Silvergate writes about is the story of how Elisha Dawkins, an honored combat veteran is currently sitting in Federal jail because he apparently answered a question improperly on his passport application.   
I've written many times on this subject, and don't plan to stop.  Silvergate adds more.  
In 2004, Steven Kurtz, an art professor at the State University of New York in Buffalo, was indicted on mail fraud charges for what boiled down to a paperwork error. Federal agents, after learning that Kurtz was using bacteria in his artwork to critique genetic engineering, launched a full-scale bioterrorism investigation against him.  Finding nothing pernicious about the harmless stomach flora, they resorted to a creative interpretation of the mail fraud statute.
The most dangerously far-reaching statutes tend to result from knee-jerk congressional reactions to the threat du jour.
The federal ban on providing “material support” to a terrorist group, the statute that the federal government uses most frequently in prosecuting terrorism cases, provides another example of how difficult it can be to stay on the right side of the law.......
The story of what happens when an organization that asked if something is illegal and eventually ends up in the supreme court.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts reasoned that helping terrorist organizations to resolve disputes through international bodies or obtain humanitarian relief from the United Nations inevitably would free up resources for other, more nefarious ends. Hence a “person of ordinary intelligence would understand” that such conduct constitutes “material support.”
I would argue that if the case makes it all the way to the supreme court, enough people of "ordinary intelligence" have pondered the question that Justice Roberts' answer is offensive.  Which leads, of course, to this prescient quote from Ayn Rand. 

"There's no way to rule innocent men. The only power government has is the power to crack down on criminals. When there aren't enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws."   Ayn Rand

To borrow my line from earlier in the month, "Code of Federal Regulations, Volume 1 of 9247, Abridged Edition"