New Crime, More Time: Are You A Foreign Outlaw?

Paul J. Larkin Jr. /

As part of an ongoing series, Heritage’s Center for Legal and Judicial Studies identifies a “Bill of the Week” which impacts overcriminalization in America.

Not every Bill of the Week represents an unwise policy judgment.  This week we celebrate a bill entitled “The Freedom from Over-Criminalization and Unjust Seizures Act of 2012” (the FOCUS Act), a measure that protects Americans from liability for violating foreign laws that they likely wouldn’t even know is a crime.

Senator Rand Paul (R–KY) introduced the FOCUS Act in the Senate, and Representative Paul C. Broun (R-GA) introduced the bill in the House.  The FOCUS Act would amend a federal law known as the Lacey Act, which is an unusual piece of legislation.  The Lacey Act makes it a crime to take or import fish, wildlife, or plants “in violation of any foreign law.”  The result is that domestic fisherman, florists, and the like can be held criminally liable for violating the laws of a foreign nation, regardless of what that law is, regardless of what country adopted it, and regardless of whether anyone in fact knew what the foreign law said.

Among other things, the FOCUS Act would make the Lacey Act enforceable only through the civil process.  That result would benefit the average person considerably.  The concept that the average person is aware of all the laws in this nation may be necessary (even though it is a fiction), but the notion that the average person also knows what foreign nations outlaw is an absurdity.  Eliminating the criminal provisions of the Lacey Act represents a sound policy judgment that people in the United States should not be prosecuted for conduct that no average person would expect to be a crime.

The Senate bill was proposed on February 2 and referred to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.  The House version of the FOCUS Act was proposed on March 8 and referred to the House Natural Resources Committee.