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Follow the debate: Overcriminalization is a problem, but a 'mistake of law defense' is not the right solution

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by William G. Otis

The reach of criminal law to enforce the regulatory state poses serious questions. Regulatory crimes tend to be "strict liability" offenses. That is, they do not require that that the defendant be found to have had bad intent in order to convict and punish him.

This is a relatively new and potentially ominous development. The Founders contemplated criminal punishment for, roughly, "bad actors" -- those who do something a person with common sense and ordinary intelligence would intuitively think of as criminal. Generally, criminal behavior up to now has been defined by people who either don't control their temper; want to make a quick buck; or range from extremely non-empathetic to malevolent.

Regulatory crimes are a different kettle of fish. As some recent episodes have shown, regulations "criminalize" behavior based on what the regulator, acting to implement his view of vaguely described legislative intent, sees as forbidden. For the law to accommodate this raises a host of problems. One of them is lack of accountability: The regulator does not face the voters, and is often hidden behind layers of bureaucracy. Another is lack of democratic legitimacy: Regulators simply do not have the mandate conferred by getting elected.

To partly counteract these problems, some have suggested an updated version of the mistake of law defense. Under this version, it would be an affirmative defense if the defendant did not know, and a reasonable person in the defendant's position would not have known, that the defendant's conduct was a crime.

Such a proposal has obvious appeal for the reasons outlined. Yet caution is in order, because the on-the-ground reality will look different. What will happen is that the defendant will preemptively go to his brother-in-law (the one with a law degree) and present some sanitized version of his plan, in order to inveigle the newly-employed "counsel" to say, "Well it might be close to the line, but I guess it's OK."

When the defendant goes to trial -- having swindled his way to millions through some novel, improvised, now-you-see-it-and-now-you-don't "financial product" -- he'll use the mistake of law defense to insist, "I sought legal advice and was told it wasn't any worse than close to the line. I might have made a mistake, but I asked and my lawyer said it was OK."

More generally, once we allow defendants to turn the trial into a contest about the state of their legal knowledge, we have invited a morass. State-of-mind defenses are already out of control; state of legal knowledge defenses will be, if anything, worse. Even to combat the dangers of regulators-run-wild, we should be cautious before we expand them.


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Isaac Gorodetski
Project Manager,
Center for Legal Policy at the
Manhattan Institute
igorodetski@manhattan-institute.org

Katherine Lazarski
Press Officer,
Manhattan Institute
klazarski@manhattan-institute.org

 

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