Our criminal code is far too broad. You have likely committed a crime without ever intending to break the law.
Criminal law draws its moral force from the assumption that everyone knows the law and can take steps to avoid breaking it. Regrettably, this assumption is very far from the truth.
Very few people ever actually read criminal statutes. Fewer still have any actual education or training in the law. Most people learn what the law forbids from their parents, ministers, teachers or others in their community. Their knowledge extends to what the moral code puts out of bounds, but it does not stop there.
It is also easy to become aware of commonly enforced laws, and laws which proscribe dangerous conduct.
Unfortunately, our laws are not restricted to only limiting conduct which is immoral or dangerous.
Particularly over the last 50 years, Congress has enacted numerous criminal laws, not to protect important national interests of a modern nation, but to score political points with voters who are led to believe that outlawing more and more kinds of conduct, or increasing the penalty for conduct that is already a crime, somehow solves a crime problem.
Traditionally, federal criminal law focused on inherently wrongful conduct such as treason, murder, bank robbery, theft, counterfeiting and the like.
Today, the federal criminal code reaches an unimaginably broad range of conduct.
To compound the issue, Congress has enacted criminal penalties for an innumerable amount of federal regulations. There are hundreds of thousands of crimes which are illegal not because Congress proclaimed the behavior as offensive, but because federal bureaucrats decreed the behavior against regulation, and Congress has passed over-broad statutes which made all regulations passed by the bureaucrats to be crimes.
These crimes are published haphazardly throughout the millions of pages of the United States Code and the Code of Federal Regulations.
Consequently, it is truly impossible for even the most learned of our citizenry to actually know what is illegal. While not actually published in secret like the laws of the infamous Roman Emperor Caligula, they might as well be, because the extreme breadth of the crimes in the United States makes us all criminals.
This gives government officials extraordinary power of all citizens and calls to mind Emperor Caligula’s oft-repeated phrase: “Remember that I have the right to do anything to anybody.”
A few years ago, Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Calif.) introduced a bill in the House of Representatives to address this issue. Her bill, had it been made law, would have required each federal agency to provide the House and Senate Judiciary Committees with a list of and justification for all rules and regulations that carry criminal penalties. It would have then directed Congress to review these regulations to see if they were truly necessary, or if civil penalties or outright repeal would be appropriate.
Sadly, after her bill was reviewed in committee, it was presumably realized that this would result in a tremendous amount of work for legislators, and her bill died in the committee and never made it to the House floor to be voted upon.
Practically all inherently wrongful conduct has been criminalized several times over. Congress must halt its overcriminalization rampage and begin to eliminate vague, overly broad criminal offenses that punish people who violate one of the tens of thousands of federal criminal offenses without criminal intent or even knowing that these offenses exist.
John Judkins is a Greenfield attorney.