House Task Force Will Address ‘Over-Criminalization’ of Federal Law

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On May 31, the House Committee on Judiciary Over-Criminalization Task Force will begin a six-month investigation to determine whether the U.S. Code over-criminalizes relatively minor conduct. The bipartisan task force, composed of five Republicans and five Democrats, will conduct hearings and review thousands of federal criminal statutes for purposes of recommending consensus-based improvements to federal criminal law.

Legislators of all political stripes recognize the need for reform. Experts estimate that the U.S. Code contains 4,500 federal crimes and up to 300,000 regulations that provide for the imposition of criminal penalties. One-third of all federal criminal statutes were added to the U.S. Code within the last 30 years. This recent explosion in federal criminal law has added significant costs for prosecution, resolution, and incarceration. Sometimes Congress enacts new laws that overlap with existing state law, thus transferring enforcement costs from the states to the federal government.

Over-criminalization also burdens individuals. Indeed, the labyrinth of federal criminal statutes and regulations seriously undermines a basic tenet of criminal law — that people should have fair notice of what is against the law. Stories abound to show that the presumption can be as unrealistic as the real-world consequences are devastating:

• In 2003, Texas senior citizen George Norris was indicted in Miami for importing mislabeled orchids in violation of an international treaty as implemented by the Endangered Species Act. After pleading guilty to the charges, Norris was sentenced to 17 months in prison — part of which he served in solitary confinement — and two years of supervised release. He was also ordered to pay an assessment of $700. Although he had no prior record, the orchid-gardener-turned-felon cannot vote, own a gun, or keep alcohol in his home.

• In 2007, Lawrence Lewis was charged with discharging pollutants in violation of the Clean Water Act. Formerly the chief engineer at a military retirement home near D.C., Lewis made the ill-advised but well-intentioned decision to divert backed-up sewage into an outside storm drain to prevent flooding in an area where the military home’s most vulnerable residents lived. Lewis mistakenly believed that the storm drain emptied into a waste-treatment facility; instead, the drain emptied into a creek that feeds the Potomac River. Lewis decided the risks associated with fighting the charge were too great, so he pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to probation and ordered to pay a $2,500 fine.

• In 2011, 11-year old Skylar Capo rescued a baby woodpecker near Fredericksburg, Va. Two weeks later, an employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service traveled to the girl’s home to cite her for violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail, a fine, or both. The federal agent confirmed that Skylar had already released the bird and canceled the citation. But the automated system processed the citation anyway, so Skylar received a notice requiring her to pay a $535 fine and threatening possible jail time. Although the Fish and Wildlife Service apologized for the error, the case illustrates the potential for abuse that exists due to over-criminalization.

No doubt, the task force will investigate ways to minimize such absurd results. It remains to be seen whether the investigation will produce meaningful change. On one hand, there is reason for hope: efforts to address over-criminalization have broad support among Republicans, Democrats, and a diverse coalition of groups including the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the American Bar Association.

On the other hand, history suggests that change will not come easy. The House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security conducted a hearing on over-criminalization almost four years ago, but congressional efforts to address the problem never gained traction. For example, current Task Force member Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) is a sponsor of the Criminal Code Modernization and Simplification Act, which would reduce the federal criminal code by one-third and otherwise consolidate and streamline federal criminal law.

Sensenbrenner introduced versions of the bill in 2006, 2007, 2009, and 2011, but none was enacted. He reportedly intends to reintroduce the bill this year. If the task force and its supporters are able to raise awareness of how over-criminalization burdens society and individual liberties, legislators on both sides of the aisle may find the political capital they need to get something done.