You are a criminal.
You probably don’t know it, but it is extremely likely that you have committed a crime which carries serious consequences.
Your federal government has criminalized behavior that many would consider to be benign and trivial. Unfortunately, this means that you can no longer rely upon Jiminy Cricket in determining if your behavior is illegal. Perhaps, once upon a time, Americans could let their conscience be their guides to remain law-abiding. But sadly, common sense is no longer a reliable resource to ensure you remain on the right side of the law.
Federal Judge Alex Kozinski has famously observed that “because of the thousands of federal laws and hundreds of thousands of federal regulations that can be criminally enforced…most people have committed at least one crime carrying serious consequences.”
This is not because most people are evil ner-do-wells who flaunt the laws of society. This is because lawmakers constantly pass new and more severe laws criminalizing the most insignificant behaviors. From 2000 to 2007, Congress created, on average, one new crime for every week of each of those years, and this tally does not even account for the obscenely large numbers of regulations which carry criminal penalties which were also enacted during that same time.
Worse yet, these criminal laws are actually quite difficult to find. Even if you had a few extra months of spare time, and you decided that you would like to be an informed citizen and read every federal criminal law on the books, you would likely be unable to do so.
The U.S. Code is a collection of books containing every federal law currently enacted. When you hear that a law is “on the books” the phrase is quite literal. The code is divided into titles, with each title being its own book or volume of books. These titles have exciting names such as “Bankruptcy,” “Patents,” “Pay and Allowances of the Armed Services,” and “Public Contracts.” Title 18 of the U.S. Code is called “Crimes and Criminal Procedure.”
A logical citizen might think that if they read Title 18, then they would have read all of the federal crimes. After all, Title 18 is about 1,500 pages long with another 300-page long appendix. Unfortunately, Title 18 just contains a fraction of the criminal statutes.
Why aren’t all of the laws which carry criminal penalties listed in the Title identified as Crimes? Honestly, there is no good reason. It is as if our government is determined to make it nearly impossible for an average citizen to determine what is or is not permitted under the law. Inexplicably, there are thousands of criminal laws scattered throughout the 54 titles of the U.S. Code. As such, it is essentially impossible to know every behavior that Congress, in its infinite wisdom, has outlawed.
One solution to this problem might be for Congress to prune the U.S. Code a bit and repeal some of these absurd laws. Unfortunately, I would not advise anyone to put much faith in that august body. Therefore, and in consideration of Thomas Jefferson’s famous words that: “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people,” I am going to begin submitting some of these unique statutes so that citizens of Highland County can be aware of what the federal government considers criminal behavior.
Please be advised that it is a federal crime to leave the United States with more than $25 worth of nickels in your pocket.
John Judkins is a Greenfield attorney.