The Worst Thing that Anybody Can Do to You is Take Away Your Freedom

Brian Walsh /

How much danger does the federal government’s unprincipled, out-of-control body of criminal law pose to, say, the average American small-business person?  Well, suppose you were a small-business owner, and for twelve years both U.S. Customs and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had been inspecting the shipments of seafood you were importing to sell to U.S. restaurant distributors.  Suppose that for the entirety of those twelve years you had always packaged your shipments using plastic bags rather than cardboard boxes.  Suppose that there is no U.S. law requiring you to use anything other than plastic.

It would never occur to you that you might be charged with a federal crime and sentenced to over 8 years in federal prison because a third federal agency, the National Marine Fishery Service, decided that you had violated another nation’s obscure–and invalid–regulation requiring cardboard rather than plastic.

As chronicled by this new Heritage Foundation video, that is exactly what happened to Abner (Abbie) Schoenwetter.  Abbie had no criminal record whatsoever.  No one alleged that he was smuggling drugs or weapons.  He was not cheating on his taxes.  No one alleged that he used or even threatened violence.

What federal prosecutors did allege was that using plastic instead of cardboard violated a Honduran regulation.  The Attorney General of Honduras who–like the Attorney General of the United States–is the highest ranking law enforcement official in the nation, certified in writing that this regulation and two others that federal prosecutors alleged that Abbie violated were not applicable to Abbie’s case.

But because these unreasonable prosecutors were armed with a vague, overly broad, and otherwise unjust federal criminal law (the American Lacey Act), none of this mattered to them.  Essentially, the Lacey Act makes it a federal crime to violate any fish or wildlife regulation of any nation on earth.  (What are the chances that Congress reviewed every nation’s fish and wildlife regulations to ensure they are consistent with the Constitution and U.S. policy?)

Abbie Schoenwetter’s business, health, and family life (he has a wife and three kids) were wiped out because unreasonable federal prosecutors – one of whom is now the head of the criminal division in the Alabama U.S. attorney’s office – used an unjust law to target Abbie and a Honduran fisherman from whom Abbie purchased his seafood.

Abbie spent six and one half years in confinement and is now under the supervision of a parole officer for three years.

But he is not alone.  Aspiring inventor Krister Evertson spent almost two years in federal prison because unreasonable federal prosecutors and EPA officials armed with unjust federal laws decided that storing materials in 3/8”-thick stainless steel drums was the equivalent of disposing of them without a permit.

Unreasonable federal prosecutors and National Forest Service officials armed with an unjust federal law decided that three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Bobby Unser was a criminal because, they estimated, he might have accidentally wandered into a national wildlife area.  This occurred when he and a snowmobiling companion were caught two days and nights in the Rocky Mountains in a blinding blizzard and almost died.

Abbie’s story and the others are just a few of the stories told in Heritage’s book, One Nation Under Arrest.  These stories all demonstrate the truth of Abbie Schoenwetter’s statement, “The worst thing anybody can do to you is take away your freedom.”