Criminal Justice

Federal Complexities Cause Overcriminalization of America

In addition to state and local laws, more than 4,500 federal criminal laws and an estimated 300,000 federal regulations carrying potential criminal penalties threaten to place Americans on the wrong side of the criminal justice system. The incredible number of criminal laws and regulations means that average people and business owners have little way of knowing that their seemingly normal, everyday activities may actually be illegal. As a result, well-meaning citizens with no intention of breaking the law spend countless hours and dollars fending off criminal prosecution.

For example, Bradford Councilman had a business, Interloc Inc., which provided customers with an online database of rare and out of print books. Interloc Inc. would temporarily store customer emails until there was confirmation of delivery. For this, federal agents raided the business and charged Councilman with the federal crime of conspiracy to violate the Wire Tap Act. Due to the complexity of the law, judges could not agree on the matter, and, after seven years of fighting, the Councilman was found not guilty, but this was not before losing his job and his company to the process.

A recent law review article, Rethinking Presumed Knowledge of the Law in the Regulatory Age by Michael Cottone, discusses the notion of presumed knowledge as it applies to the law. Ignorance of the law is no excuse, and ignorance often does not provide legal cover, presenting a problem in the current age of complex regulations because the average citizen cannot reasonably be expected to know over 4,500 federal criminal statutes and 300,000 federal regulations. The unrealistic presumption of knowledge is leading American individuals and business owners to face prosecution for actions they have little way of knowing are crimes.

In a recent Washington Post article, columnist George Will discusses and agrees with Mr. Cottone. Eliminating presumption of knowledge completely would be a mistake because people could then claim ignorance to escape culpability. However, with the large quantity of complex laws and diminishing mens rea requirements, too many Americans unknowingly violate federal law and are genuinely mistaken.

Because of the overcriminalization of America, certain default criminal intent rules should be applied to ensure only those intending to violate the law or knowing the conduct to be unlawful are convicted of the crime. American citizens and business owners should be protected against unjust charges and convictions that stem from complex federal laws and regulations.

For more information, please see the ALEC Criminal Intent Protection Act and “Criminalizing America – How Big Government Makes a Criminal of Every American.”

In Depth: Criminal Justice

The American Legislative Exchange Council is proud to be a leader on criminal justice reform. For over a decade, the ALEC task force on criminal justice has brought state legislators and stakeholders together for the purpose of driving sound criminal justice policies. ALEC members focus on new and innovative state…

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