We have too many laws in our nation. This is a refrain which I have repeatedly reiterated in this very paper.
Some examples from our voluminous criminal code include the following:
It is a federal crime for a cheesemaker to sell cheddar cheese unless the curd was matted into a cohesive mass — 21 USC §§331, 333, 343 & 21 CFR §133.113(a)(3).
It is a federal crime for an officer of the 11-member National Kiwifruit Board to leak confidential kiwi handling records obtained from kiwi handlers — 7 USC §7465(g)(3).
It a federal crime to make unreasonable noises at CIA Headquarters — 50 USC §3515 & 32 CFR §1903.14(c).
I have had several people approach me since I began writing these articles and note with amusement an outdated statute that has become absurd through the passage of time and evolution of the morals of our society. I’ve heard about the illegality of donkeys on church lawns and ice cream on Sundays. However, the laws I post are generally ones which are not antiquated, but are instead the result of overzealous legislators and bureaucrats more intent on doing “something” than on doing good. These are not statutes that have been on the books since the 1800s, which legislatures have never bothered to expunge. These are recent acts from the 20th and 21st centuries passed by complacent legislatures interested in campaign material, not justice.
This absurdity is typically compounded exponentially when legislatures criminalize regulations created by unaccountable administrative agencies.
Consider the case of former Indianapolis 500 champion Bobby Unser. In December 1996, Unser and a friend got lost in the mountains of southern Colorado while snowmobiling. Unser’s friend nearly died, and Bobby suffered dehydration and frostbite necessitating hospitalization.
The saga began when the two friends were lawfully snowmobiling in permitted areas of a mountainous national forest just north of the Colorado-New Mexico border. While they were enjoying themselves the weather turned and Unser and his friend got caught in a 50 to 70mile an hour ground blizzard. With very little visibility in the blizzard, Bobby and his friend quickly got lost and disoriented. When the snowmobiles got stuck and broke down, the two men were forced to abandon their sleds and dig a snow cave for shelter to survive the first night. They spent the following day and night trekking through deep snow in 20-below temperatures before finally reaching help.
Following his recovery in January, Bobby sought the assistance of the National Forest Service to locate his lost snowmobile. He reviewed maps with Forest Service personnel, openly discussed his ordeal, and identified a potential location for pursuing the search. After this discussion, federal officials charged Bobby with operating a motorized vehicle inside a National Wilderness area, a federal crime. Bobby’s snowmobile was not found inside a wilderness area, and Bobby was not aware that he might have traveled through a wilderness area when he was lost in the snowstorm.
Nevertheless, a rescue worker testified at trial that based on his “guess” he thought Bobby had probably traveled through a wilderness area at some point when he was lost in the snowstorm. The government never argued that Bobby meant to violate the law, nor did they argue that he even recklessly disregarded the possibility that he might violate the law. They knew he was lost in a storm and didn’t know where he was. Federal prosecutors still sought a conviction even knowing he had no intention of entering a wilderness area and had no knowledge that he might have done so. Ultimately, Bobby was found guilty, and his conviction was upheld on appeal.
As such, please be aware that it is a federal crime to operate a snowmobile in a national wilderness area, even if you do so accidentally while lost in a snowstorm — 16 U.S.C. § 551 and 36 C.F.R. § 261.18(a).
John Judkins is a Greenfield attorney.