Something that Congress needs to seriously consider is eliminating the authorization of federal agencies to designate violations of their rules as actual crimes.
Unbeknownst to the vast majority of Americans, federal agencies – consisting of no elected representatives at all – have the right to create criminal statutes. There are numerous, egregious instances that have come about where people were convicted of crimes made by agencies that no one knew -or even should have known – was a crime in the first place. This needs to end!
For example, in 2007, Lawrence Lewis, pleaded guilty of unknowingly violating the Clean Water Act. His crime? He and his crew followed policy and diverted overflowing waters – which threatened to flood the health care building he was servicing- into the street. Though the drain was connected to the city’s system, it actually emptied into a creek that flowed into the Potomac River. He had to pay a fine and submit himself to unannounced probation checks at home and at his subsequent job.
Likewise, in 2009, Eddie Leroy Anderson and his son dug for arrowheads for his collection while camping. Because it turned out that they were on federal land, that action violated the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 which they didn’t even know existed. They eventually pleaded guilty to avoid jail time and paid a $1500 fine — and never even found any arrowheads that day.
Then there the case of Robert Kern, a Virginian who was hunting moose in Russia. His hunting group shot animals from a helicopter, which is illegal in Russia; therefore, he was charged with violating the U.S. 2008 Lacey Act, a statute that makes it a felony to import fish or wildlife if it breaks another country’s laws.” The only way he was actually acquitted was due to a Russian official intervening and testifying at his trial that his group had a legal exemption — so he should never have been charged in the first place! What’s more, he was still on the hook for $860,000 in legal bills for something he didn’t even do!
The list could go on and on, because it’s impossible to quantify the number of agency statues. According to the Wall Street Journal (“As Criminal Laws Proliferate, More Are Ensnared, July 23, 2001), there were “an estimated 4,500 crimes in federal statutes, according to a 2008 study by retired Louisiana State University law professor John Baker.There are also thousands of regulations that carry criminal penalties. Some laws are so complex, scholars debate whether they represent one offense, or scores of offenses.
Counting them is impossible. The Justice Department spent two years trying in the 1980s, but produced only an estimate: 3,000 federal criminal offenses. The American Bar Association tried in the late 1990s, but concluded only that the number was likely much higher than 3,000. The ABA’s report said “the amount of individual citizen behavior now potentially subject to federal criminal control has increased in astonishing proportions in the last few decades.” Likewise, a Justice spokeswoman said there was no quantifiable number. Criminal statutes are sprinkled throughout some 27,000 pages of the federal code.”
No one ever intended for federal agencies to have the right to make up their own crimes — never mind the staggering number we have today. We need to remove authorization to create and approve crimes that ensnare good law-abiding citizens and turn them into felons over obscure matters.