More Laws Equal Less Justice

There are way too many laws on the books, making unsuspecting Americans into "criminals."

Louis DeBroux · Oct. 30, 2019

Most Americans are law-abiding citizens, or so they think. Yet they would be shocked to discover they are likely criminals, since the average American commits three felonies per day!

In their defense, the vast majority of these “criminals” have no idea they are breaking the law. How could they? When the federal government can’t even provide an accurate count of how many statutes and regulations carrying criminal penalties are on the books, how can the average American possibly know?

The current best estimate is that there are more than 300,000 laws and regulations carrying criminal penalties. Three. Hundred. Thousand. As Professor John Baker once said, “There is no one in the United States over the age of 18 who cannot be indicted for some federal crime. That is not an exaggeration.”

Thanks to Congress and its habit of passing laws with little or no requirement for mens rea (a consciousness of guilt, meaning the person knows that what they are doing is wrong), it is literally impossible for any American to know whether some action they take is violating the law.

This is wrong on many levels.

One, it creates anger and contempt for the law. James Madison warned of this in Federalist 62, declaring “It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man who knows what the law is today can guess what it will be to-morrow.”

Second, it is immoral to deprive a man of life, liberty, or property for an activity that he was not even aware was a crime. Yet it happens every single day in America.

For example, most Americans know (even if only from watching crime dramas) that bank deposits of $10,000 or more have to be reported to the IRS. This is supposed to be a tool to crack down on tax evasion, drug dealing, and money laundering. But did you know you can be fined and go to jail for making deposits of less than $10,000 as well?

Lyndon McLellan didn’t, and he paid the price … literally.

McLellan is the owner of L&M Convenience Mart, a small mom-and-pop convenience store in poor, rural North Carolina. The very nature of the business means most of his customers paid in cash for the gas, drinks, home-cooked food, cigarettes, and other goods they purchased. Each day he worked long hours to make a success of a business where long hours and low profit margins are the norm.

McLellan worked nearly every day since 2001, rarely taking a vacation, often running the register, sweeping floors, and cooking food from open to close. Every few days McLellan’s niece would deposit a few thousand dollars with his bank. After more than a dozen years of hard work, the IRS came in one day and seized his bank account, which amounted to just $107,702 — less than what many American families make in a single year.

The reason?

The IRS accused McLellan of “structuring” violations — intentionally making deposits of less than $10,000 in order to avoid federal reporting requirements. Lyndon pleaded his innocence, and pointed out that he had vendors to pay, which he could not do if his bank account was frozen. If he could not pay his vendors, then they would stop providing goods and his store would be forced to close. Even after his accountant meticulously matched receipts with deposits to show that the money was legitimate, the government dismissed the evidence.

Luckily, the Institute for Justice took on his case, and after several years McLellan prevailed in court. He was eventually able to get his money back — though the government initially tried to keep the money even after the charges were dismissed.

Sadly, this is just one of countless cases that keep our courtrooms and prisons packed, even when the “crime” is simply a transgression of a statute that as often as not makes no sense, prevents no crime, and protects no victim. Consider Barbara Horst, the Ohio grandmother charged with a felony for having 14 scrap tires in her truck, when the legal limit was 10.

Thanks to these miscarriages of justice, innocent Americans are becoming criminals faster than ever, even though violent crime and property crimes have been steadily dropping for years.

Though a rising number of prosecutors are pushing back on the criminalization of victimless crimes (or disproportionate punishment for minor offenses), it still leaves the average American at risk of prosecution for unwittingly committing a crime, the only hope of escape being a lucky draw of a reasonable prosecutor. The Institute for Justice does fantastic work, but they can only take on a handful of cases each year.

Our laws should be simple and easily understood by people of average intelligence. They should deprive citizens of liberty or property only as punishment and restitution for depriving others of the same. The more laws we have on the books, the less likely we are to see justice prevail, and the more likely we are to see the laws used by those in power to oppress the innocent.

So the next time you hear someone say, “There ought to be a law,” just remember — the next Lyndon McLellan or Barbara Horst could be you.

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