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James Shott / Apr. 8, 2015

Notice: You Are Breaking One or More Federal Laws and/or Regulations

Most of us probably think of ourselves as law-abiding, up-standing American citizens. We pay our taxes on time. We keep our drivers licenses and inspections up to date. We don’t shoplift, or take illegal drugs. We don’t murder, rob, rape or assault others. That’s the way law-abiding citizens think and act.

And yet, I am willing to bet some money that every one of us has breeched or is on the wrong side of some federal decree.

I say that with a high degree of confidence because there are so many of these edicts from on high that nobody – not you, not law enforcement, not even the judges at whose mercy we will find ourselves if charged for breaking one – knows them all.

You see, here in the Land of the Free there are between 3,600 and 4,500 federal statutes that impose criminal sanctions, according to Michael Cottone, writing in the Tennessee Law Review.

As bad as that is, the ridiculously high number of federal laws pales in comparison to the number of regulations created by administrative agencies that carry criminal penalties, maybe as many as 300,000 of them.

With that knowledge, the old maxim “ignorance of the law is no excuse” is now a mere absurdity.

Of course, if we actually were to follow the dictates of the U.S. Constitution – a quaint idea, these days – at least some of those 300,000 regulations aren’t valid, since the only authorized law-making entity at the federal level is the Congress, and the Constitution does not authorize the Congress to abdicate that duty, and pass it along to the excessive number of unelected bureaucrats in the too-many Executive Branch agencies, departments, administrations, commissions and offices.

The Constitution sets forth the following: Article I, Section I: “All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.” That’s about as plain as it can be. Notice it does not say, “except where Congress decides to cede that authority to the Executive Branch.”

Some laws are downright stupid, or sometimes are applied stupidly:

  • A child saved a woodpecker from her family’s cat and was fined $535 under the migratory bird law.

  • A 66-year-old retiree went to prison because he didn’t have proper paperwork for orchids.

Some are irrational; others are conveniently broad and through twisted reasoning are used to punish American individuals and businesses. Consider the case of Gibson Guitars: On August 24, 2011, agents of the federal government executed four search warrants on Gibson manufacturing plants in Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee, where they seized pallets of wood, electronic files and finished guitars. Other than making excellent musical instruments, what had Gibson done?

Public servants in the Department of Justice determined that using wood from India that was not finished by workers in India is illegal, not by U.S. law, but because of the way the DOJ interpreted Indian law. The feds argued that Gibson violated the Lacey Act of 1900, which outlaws the use of plants and wildlife that have been taken or traded in violation of foreign law.

Apparently, Gibson is supposed to have known that Indian companies broke Indian law and sold wood illegally, thereby making Gibson subject to prosecution in the U.S. Seriously.

CEO Henry Juszkiewicz said Gibson competitors also use this same wood, and wondered why his company had been singled out. Fair question. Regardless, Gibson paid $300,000 to avoid criminal charges, was forced to make a “community service payment” of $50,000 to the U.S. National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to promote conservation and development of tree species used in making musical instruments, as well as withdraw claims to $262,000 worth of exotic woods seized by federal authorities.

It is unfair and oppressive to hold taxpaying citizens to the impossible standard of knowing and obeying every one of the hundreds of thousands of laws and regulations that might affect them, but in addition to that, perpetuating circumstances that allow prosecutors to haul people into court and potentially fine or imprison them on the flimsy basis that they should actually know all these decrees is outrageous, although Mussolini, Pol Pot, and Stalin would approve.

“The criminal code today is so vast and complex that judges and lawyers have a lot of trouble discerning what’s legal and what’s illegal,” John Malcom, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told the House Judiciary Committee. “What hope do ordinary citizens have?” The government should be required to identify every federal crime, he said, and make that list easily accessible and free to the public.

National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers president Steven Benjamin testified that when the average citizen cannot figure out what is illegal, “that is unfairness in its most basic form. We have become addicted to the use of criminal law as a blunt instrument to control social and economic behavior.”

George Terwilliger, former deputy attorney general in George W. Bush’s administration, thinks Congress should pass one overriding law that requires proof of intent for any federal crime.

Contact your representative and senators and tell them to implement the Malcom and Terwilliger recommendations.


James Shott is a columnist for the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, and publishes his columns on several Websites, including his own, Observations.

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