It's all a federal case.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Wall Street Journal notes that there were only three federal crimes mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, whereas now, there are thousands "sprinkled throughout some 27,000 pages of the federal code." (Legal scholars can't come to an exact number.)

Along the way, the article relates several egregious examples of people discovering in the course of living their daily lives that they were guilty (but only in a legal sense) of federal crimes. My "favorite" of these was a case in which a man did time after he was found guilty of violating the law of a country whose own courts had ruled that it was invalid.

Occasionally, Americans are going to prison in the U.S. for violating the laws and rules of other countries. Last year, Abner Schoenwetter finished 69 months in federal prison for conspiracy and smuggling. His conviction was related to importing the wrong kinds of lobsters and bulk packaging them in plastic, rather than separately in boxes, in violation of Honduran laws.

According to court records and interviews, Mr. Schoenwetter had been importing lobsters from Honduras since the mid-1980s. In early 1999, federal officials seized a 70,000-pound shipment after a tip that the load violated a Honduran statute setting a minimum size on lobsters that could be caught. Such a shipment, in turn, violated a U.S. law, the Lacey Act, which makes it a felony to import fish or wildlife if it breaks another country's laws. Roughly 2% of the seized shipment was clearly undersized, and records indicated other shipments carried much higher percentages, federal officials said.

In an interview, Mr. Schoenwetter, 65 years old, said he and other buyers routinely accepted a percentage of undersized lobsters since the deliveries from the fishermen inevitably included smaller ones. He also said he didn't believe bringing in some undersized lobsters was illegal, noting that previous shipments had routinely passed through U.S. Customs.

After conviction, Mr. Schoenwetter and three co-defendants appealed, and the Honduran government filed a brief on their behalf saying that Honduran courts had invalidated the undersized-lobster law. By a two-to-one vote, however, a federal appeals panel found the Honduran law valid at the time of the trial and upheld the convictions.
Unsurprisingly, a large percentage of the people in federal prison are there due to federal laws pertaining to drug prohibitions, environmentalism is spurring the most growth in punishment for manufactured federal "crimes," and many regulations call for federal penalties when violated.

A major weakness in the article was that it failed to distinguish between legitimate crimes (i.e., those that violate individual rights, such as fraud -- versus acts that harm no one, and yet are punishable by federal law, such as wrapping lobsters in plastic under the "wrong" circumstances).
Tougher federal drug laws account for about 30% of people sentenced, a decline from over 40% two decades ago. The proportion of people sentenced for most other crimes, such as firearms possession, fraud and other non-violent offenses, has doubled in the past 20 years.
With the numbers for actual crimes, like fraud, co-mingled with those for federally-punishable not-really-crimes, it is hard, in one sense, to fully appreciate the extent of this problem. (We can, however, say that upwards of about a third of all federal prisoners are serving sentences for things that should not be classified as crimes.) But in another sense, it is easy to see that we are in big trouble: The precedent has not only been set for ordinary actions taken without any criminal intent to land people in hot water, that precedent is being followed on a large scale already.

-- CAV

--- In Other News ---

Who knew that a whole bunch of time, spent mostly at home and often rocking a baby would begin to transform me into a mobile phone warrior? Between my recent purchase of a smart phone and my time-starved, unpredictable schedule, I've quickly come to appreciate the versatility of my phone, and look for ways to make it as useful as possible. Among my favorite productivity-enhancing applications so far are Dropbox, Evernote mobile, and Delicious. The last of these is what has made blogging -- at all -- possible over the past couple of days.

I'm nowhere near ditching my printer, but since I am working -- very slowly, now -- to become as paperless as I can get, I found a post at Unclutterer about "Functioning in a Printer-less Office" thought-provoking.

SB and LB share their thoughts about this year's OCON, which I completely missed, including the on-line sessions. The Peter Schwartz talk sounds like it was great.

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