The SAFE DOSES Act, which just passed the House, makes stealing medical equipment a federal crime punishable by up to 30 years in prison and a $1,000,000 fine.
There is no doubt that conduct of the kind mentioned in the SAFE DOSES Act is wrong and should be punished criminally. But does it need to be prosecuted on the federal level? Are the state laws governing the crimes of theft, burglary, and larceny inadequate to address the crime of stealing medical equipment?
The answer is no. All 50 states already have laws under which they can prosecute the misconduct covered in the SAFE DOSES Act. In fact, the federal government does, too.
So why are Congressmen trying to pass a new law criminalizing the theft of medical equipment? Maybe they are increasing the penalties to provide a better deterrent to this crime. That sounds like a worthy cause. But if that were the case, why wouldn’t they increase the penalties for all federal theft offenses? Why only the theft of medical equipment? There is also the fact that all 50 states have punishments for theft that are on par with the penalties in the SAFE DOSES Act. So creating a new felony specifically for stealing medical equipment does nothing to curb the problem.
The natural response from the supporters of such laws is a variant of the “No harm, no foul” principle. If the new laws don’t make anything a crime tomorrow that wasn’t a crime yesterday, then they cause no harm, and if they cause no harm to anyone, passing such laws should trouble no one. This argument admits that new anti-theft laws are just an empty gesture but claims to find no harm and some value in that gesture. This claim is mistaken.
Passing a new criminal law is a serious act, one that should not be done just for appearance’s sake. It leads the public to believe that the new law will have some new effect, that the legislators who passed it are in fact doing something meaningful to improve social welfare, and that the groups who supported the change are interested in the public welfare. Politicians and interest groups like passing such frivolous laws because doing so makes it look like they have accomplished something when, in fact, they haven’t. They are just pieces of paper that people hold up proudly as they proclaim, “Look what I did!” But what have they actually done? Law enforcement is not better equipped to investigate such cases, and prosecutors are no better off at trial.
In America, you get what you pay for. This new bill costs nothing, and that is exactly what it will give to the people: nothing. Congress needs to stop trying to trick Americans with these hollow bills and start actually addressing the challenges facing this country with substantive statutes.
Gavriel Swerling is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm.