An introduction to the overcriminalization of America

On Behalf of | Dec 6, 2018 | Firm News

An average American may commit one or more felonies each day by simply engaging in ordinary activities forbidden somewhere in the depths of federal or state criminal law.  Most people living in the 21st century are unaware of statutes enacted in the early decades of American history. Some of these archaic laws remain in force and designate arrestable offenses.

A popular Twitter site posts an unusual federal law crime each day. The site has published 1,461 crimes in over four years. Numerous humor sites on the internet feature outdated federal laws. The amusement value fades rapidly for those who unknowingly violate an obscure criminal statute.

For example, an 11-year-old girl saved a baby woodpecker dragged home by the family cat. Friends posted the heartwarming story on social media. Federal law forbids possession of endangered species. U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents showed up and charged the girl’s mother with an offense punishable by a year in jail and a fine of over $500. The little girl only wanted to take care of the baby woodpecker until it was strong enough to survive in its natural habitat. Fortunately, public outcry shamed the authorities into dropping the injunction.

Laws criminalize normal activities

The complete body of American law resides in the massive United States Code. There are 54 titles within the Code, which is organized into broad subjects. Each title includes several subdivisions, many of them parsed into smaller units.  The Code also encompasses citations, editorial notes and visual information arranged in tables. The Code provides a repository for additional significant information such as Presidential documents and Executive orders.

The Code represents over 200 years of legislation resulting in over 4,500 federal criminal provisions. There are an estimated 300,000 additional regulations, and each of these carries federal penalties. Each state also enacts its own extensive set of criminal statutes and rules with accompanying penalties.

Prosecution without proof of intent

The time is right to look at overcriminalization because federal agents may well be looking at you. People who unwittingly break the law may still have to go through the criminal justice system. Some pay hefty fines and even serve jail time for doing things like the catch-and-release fisherman who threw a protected species of fish over the side of his boat. Authorities have even arrested a high school girl for eating french fries while riding on public transportation.

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