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Federal criminal laws run amuck

The best mainstream media discussion of the problem of overcriminalization appeared in Saturday's Wall Street Journal, with example after example of innocents ensnared by ignorance of obscure federal regulations and laws. "Ignorance of the law is no defense" goes the cliche, but when the Department of Justice admits that there is no quantifiable number of the thousands of criminal statutes spread over 27,000 pages of the federal code, it's hard to see the fairness of some of these strict-liability crimes that don't require prosecutors to prove criminal intent. As Judge Posner wrote in his dissent in United States v. Wilson, "It is wrong to convict a person of a crime if he had no reason to believe that the act for which he was convicted was a crime, or even that it was wrongful." More: Blackman, Lynch; Overlawyered; Regulation.

Of course, states are not immune to the problem of overbroad criminal laws reaching out to solve rare problems. Sex offender registration laws, meant to protect children from pedophiles, are instead ruining the lives of children charged with minor crimes that have a sexual component: statutes intended to permit parents to track nearby rapists are being used to charge nonviolent teenagers engaging in consensual sex or 14-year-olds who rub their buttocks on a fellow teen's face as a prank. All in the name of Megan. [Detroit Free Press; Skenazy; WSJ Law Blog; earlier]

I'll be on KBAR-AM (Idaho) discussing the problems of overcriminalization today at 9:06 - 9:25 AM Mountain time. Yesterday's WPTF interview on Caylee's Law is online; I'm at the 33:00 mark.

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Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Manhattan Institute


Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.