John Stossel Highlights Heritage’s Work Combating Overcriminalization

Brian Walsh /

One of the reasons that John Stossel’s face, voice, and trademark “Give Me a Break” tagline are so familiar to conservatives is that he has mastered the art of illustrating the absurdity of arbitrary, overreaching decisions by bureaucrats, lawmakers, and other government officials.  Tonight, his show on Fox Business focuses on “Attacks on Freedom”, including the (often hidden) dangers that legislators and prosecutors have created through overcriminalization. Overcriminalization endangers average Americans who have no idea that they have become federal criminals by – for example – mixing two types of turpentine, bringing a pet into a government building, or making an honest mistake on certain government forms.  On Realclearpolitics.com yesterday, Stossel described some of the horror stories of overcriminalization, including stories covered in Heritage’s new book, “One Nation Under Arrest.”

Former U.S. Attorney General and Heritage Distinguished Fellow Edwin Meese addressed overcriminalization in his introduction to “One Nation Under Arrest.”  Meese writes:

America is in the throes of overcriminalization: We are making and enforcing far too many criminal laws that create traps for the innocent, but unwary, and that threaten to make criminals out of those who are doing their best to be respectable, law-abiding citizens

Fox Business will air Stossel’s show 8 to 9 times starting tonight at 9:00 p.m. EDT.  The show focuses on the destruction that overcriminalization caused to average Americans Krister Evertson and George and Kathy Norris.

Krister, an Eagle Scout with no criminal record – not even a single traffic ticket, was initially arrested by four FBI agents wearing black SWAT gear and pointing automatic rifles at him because he didn’t know that obscure federal regulations required him to put a certain sticker on his otherwise lawful UPS package.  After spending 21 months in an Oregon federal prison, Krister today lives by himself in a ramshackle aluminum trailer sitting on the fenced-in grounds of a construction company’s equipment yard.  Because he is on parole, he is not allowed even to move to Alaska – where he was arrested – to live with his 80-year-old mother whom he used to care for.

George Norris, a 63-year-old retiree with diabetes and heart problems, had no criminal record the day armed agents with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (?!) ransacked his house looking for evidence that he had imported endangered orchids for his home-based business. Although the feds found no evidence of illegal orchids, Norris spent 17 months in prison – including over 10 weeks in solitary confinement – because a small percentage of his paperwork was inaccurate.

One of the things Stossel asked me during the interview was whether most prosecutors have good intentions.  The majority of them do.  But even if ninety-nine percent of all prosecutors have spotless intentions, there are thousands of vague, overbroad federal laws that give the other one percent vast powers to ruin the life of almost anyone.  These laws criminalize an unimaginably vast array of conduct, much of it conduct that you or I would never dream has been made criminal.  Worse, most of these laws fail to require the government to prove that you knew that what you did was unlawful or even wrongful.

This is the trap for the unwary that Ed Meese warns about in his introduction to “One Nation Under Arrest.”  Some Members of Congress are beginning to acknowledge and combat overcriminalization. Americans need to make sure every Member of Congress does so before all that protects you from federal prison time are the laws of statistics and the whims of your local prosecutors.