By Dov Fiskus
Over the past few decades, Congress and various administrative agencies have passed myriad broad and oftentimes trifling laws and regulations, many of which do not require the violator to have any form of mens rea—or criminal intent—in order to be found guilty. And recently, there are almost 5,000 federal crimes listed in the U.S. Code and over 300,000 federal regulations that can be punitively enforced (not to mention state and local laws and regulations!)
Authors Paul Rosenzweig and Brian W. Walsh, in their book One Nation Under Arrest, recount numerous horrifying stories about how law-abiding citizens have been prosecuted relentlessly for unknowingly violating these obscure and broadly-written laws. One example Walsh cites is of Abner Schoenwetter, a middle-class Florida seafood importer who packed lobsters from his Honduran plant in plastic instead of cardboard, a violation of Honduran Law. The U.S. went on to prosecute Schoenwetter under the Lacey Act for unwittingly violating Honduran law, even though the Honduran Attorney General advised the U.S. court that the law in question had been declared null and void in Honduras. In the shocking course of events, Schoenwetter’s case went forward and he was found guilty and sentenced to over eight years in federal prison.
Although Walsh and Rosenzweig concede that stories like this are not the norm, they nonetheless assert that they’re on the rise due to the onslaught of half-baked laws passed by Congress and various governmental agencies. While Walsh and Rosenzweig lay the blame for these horror stories on the doorstep of a gluttonous and unruly legislature (and legitimately so), I believe that equal blame can be placed on our judicial system at large. The dehumanization of the legal process is clearly on display when a hard-working and honest citizen can be treated like a hardened criminal all because he unknowingly violated an obscure law. It is most frightening to me when the people involved in handing down such verdicts are able to detach themselves from reality and march lockstep with the law in the name of upholding the overarching legal system.