Last week, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on Over-Criminalization of Conduct/Over-Federalization of Criminal Law. Heritage fellow Brian Walsh wrote at the time:
We should applaud Reps. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Louie Gohmert (R-TX) for holding a bipartisan hearing today to examine how federal law can make a criminal out of anyone, for even the most mundane conduct.
Federal law in particular now criminalizes entire categories of activities that the average person would never dream would land him in prison. … Consider small-time inventor and entrepreneur Krister Evertson, who will testify at today’s hearing. Krister never had so much as a traffic ticket before he was run off the road near his mother’s home in Wasilla, Alaska, by SWAT-armored federal agents in large black SUVs training automatic weapons on him.
Evertson, who had been working on clean-energy fuel cells since he was in high school, had no idea what he’d done wrong. It turned out that when he legally sold some sodium (part of his fuel-cell materials) to raise cash, he forgot to put a federally mandated safety sticker on the UPS package he sent to the lawful purchaser. Krister’s lack of a criminal record did nothing to prevent federal agents from ransacking his mother’s home in their search for evidence on this oh-so-dangerous criminal.
Unfortunately for Krister, and American entrepreneurs everywhere, the story only gets worse from there (hint: the EPA gets involved). You can read Krister’s entire testimony here (pdf).
Also testifying last week was Kathy Norris. Heritage fellow Andrew Grossman recaps her husband’s ordeal with the feds:
George Norris, an elderly retiree, had turned his orchid hobby into a part-time business run from the greenhouse in back of his home. He would import orchids from abroad–South Africa, Brazil, Peru–and resell them at plant shows and to local enthusiasts. He never made more than a few thousand dollars a year from his orchid business, but it kept him engaged and provided a little extra money–an especially important thing as his wife, Kathy, neared retirement from her job managing a local mediation clinic.
Their life would take a turn for the worse on the bright fall morning of October 28, 2003, when federal agents, clad in protective Kevlar and bearing guns, raided his home, seizing his belongings and setting the gears in motion for a federal prosecution and jail time.
“Overcriminalization” describes the trend in America – and particularly in Congress – to use the criminal law to “solve” every problem, punish every mistake (instead of making proper use of civil penalties), and coerce Americans into conforming their behavior to satisfy social engineering objectives. Criminal law is supposed to be used to redress only that conduct which society thinks deserving of the greatest punishment and moral sanction.
But as a result of rampant overcriminalization, trivial conduct is now often punished as a crime. Many criminal laws make it possible for the government to convict a person even if he acted without criminal intent (i.e., mens rea). Sentences have skyrocketed, particularly at the federal level.