by Jarrett Dieterle, former legal intern at Manhattan Institute's Center for Legal Policy, and author of The Lacey Act: A Case Study in the Mechanics of Overcriminalization published in the Georgetown Law Journal
What if I told you that the U.S. Department of Justice could prosecute a renowned American company for exporting wood in violation of a foreign country's laws? To many Americans, such a tale would be unbelievable. How, they might ask, could violating a foreign law make one susceptible to a felony conviction in the United States?
The answer is the Lacey Act, which was the proximate cause of the now-famous Gibson Guitar raid that occurred in the summer of 2011 (when the company was accused of exporting wood for its guitars in violation of the laws of India). Under the Lacey Act, it is illegal to "import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire, or purchase" any plant or type of wildlife that was "taken, possessed, transported, or sold" in violation of a foreign or domestic law. Penalties for violating the Lacey Act can lead to draconian punishments--including felony convictions, jail time, large fines, and asset forfeiture.
Legal scholars like Paul Larkin of the Heritage Foundation have long highlighted the Lacey Act as an example of the concept of "overcriminalization" (a topic well-covered on Point of Law, as well). Overcriminalization means criminalizing conduct that most people do not view as inherently criminal or blameworthy. Although the Lacey Act's present day form has been extensively analyzed, little has been written about the Lacey Act's long and tortured history. In other words, we know a lot about why the Lacey Act criminalizes conduct that is often innocuous, but we know much less about how the law evolved to become a poster child for overcriminalization.
With this in mind, I decided to retrace the history of the Lacey Act and explore how the Act has changed over time. The result of this effort was recently published in the Georgetown Law Journal, and it turned up some fascinating trends about how overcriminalization occurs in modern, democratic societies.