After decades of striving to obey the law and teaching his children to do the same, Lawrence Lewis turned to crime. His offense? Diverting sewage into a storm drain that, unbeknownst to Lewis, eventually fed in to the Potomac River.
Lewis was born and raised in the brutal projects of Washington, D.C. Seeking to escape the fate of his three older brothers, all of whom were murdered, he took night classes while working as a janitor for the D.C. school system. He distinguished himself, eventually becoming chief engineer at the Knollwood military retirement center. By staying on the straight path, he not only secured his own future but provided a living example of a successful, crime-free life to his daughters.
The retirement home had long had problems with sewage backup. After one such backup, and in order to protect the most vulnerable patients from harm, Lewis followed the same procedures as his predecessors and rerouted the sewage to a storm drain, long believed to lead to the city’s sewage treatment system. In fact, it emptied into Rock Creek, which, in turn, fed into the Potomac River.
That decision made Lewis a criminal. The Clean Water Act prohibits disposal of sewage in “waters of the United States.” In 1972, the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wrote regulations defining “waters of the United States” to include tributaries like Rock Creek.
Because of this crime, Lewis was fingerprinted, had mug shots taken at a federal courthouse, and was forced to explain to his daughters why he might not be coming home after his sentencing hearing. Because of this crime, he had to fill out monthly cash-flow statements, hand over his gun to a family member as conditions of his probation, and endure unannounced searches of his home. Because of this crime, he was treated…well, like a criminal.
The regulation that ensnared Lewis departs from principles of justice with deep roots in Anglo-American law: It violates the doctrine of “fair notice.” The U.S. Supreme Court held in Bouie v. City of Columbia that a criminal law “must give warning of the conduct it makes a crime.” Traditionally, this requirement was satisfied if (1) a prohibited act was inherently wrongful—such as murder, arson, theft, robbery, or rape—or (2) an individual did something that he or she knew was illegal, even if it was not inherently wrongful.
Lewis is no longer on probation and is employed. But his ordeal shows that criminalizing conduct that is not inherently wrongful without the need to prove a bad intent can produce tragic results. His story discloses the human costs of departing from centuries-old principles of justice that are woven into our constitutional fabric. No American should find himself pleading guilty in federal court after years of telling his daughters that it pays to be good and practicing what he has preached.
The Heritage Foundation’s project USA vs. YOU spotlights the flood of criminal laws threatening our liberties. Explore more stories of overcriminalization and find out what you can do to reverse this trend.