Are you a criminal?

You may think you are the most upright, law abiding citizen you can be.  Oh, sure, you exceed the speed limit–who doesn’t?–but that’s not even a crime, that’s an “infraction”.

You may think that, but you’re almost certainly wrong.

The laws of the United States (and of foreign countries, which can be relevant) are so voluminous, expansive, and in some cases self-contradictory that it’s virtually impossible to go through a day without breaking one or more of them.

Consider some examples.  There is a Federal Law that says that a “scheme or artifice” to defraud your employer of your “honest services” is illegal?  Falsely calling in sick could well have put you in violation of that law.  The law was so expansive that the Supreme Court amended it so that the Supreme Court amended it to only apply to bribes or kickbacks that illegally influence lawmakers but it continues to be on the books and continues to be vaguely worded.  It’s only one example of seemingly innocuous things that could get one hauled into criminal court on federal charges.

For instance, you decide to take your dirt bike into the woods.  You stick to the marked trail only foul weather rolls in and you miss a turn and wander off the permitted trail.  Congratulations, you are now in violation of the Wilderness act.  Make it a snowmobile instead of a dirt bike, and snowstorm as the foul weather and you have the case which had race car driver Bobby Unser sentenced to six months in prison.

You quit a company because their computer security is flawed and they want fix it.  You warned them, but they did nothing.  So you tell family and friends not to use the company because their information could be exposed.  Well, congratulations,  You’ve just violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse law just like Brett McDanel who served 16 months in prison for telling customers of his former company just that–their data was at risk because of flaws the former company failed to correct.

This is a big one.  The “Martha Stewart charge”.  A Federal officer asks you something, anything, doesn’t have to even be about anything illegal.  You forget something or misremember something or make any error in that statement and you have just made a false statement to Federal Officials.

You have a low spot on your lawn that basically turns into a puddle for a large portion of the year (high water table where you live).  It’s an annoyance so you rip out the weeds, have gravel, sand, and soil hauled in to raise the spot a couple of feet.  Re-seed it with grass, and you have a nice lawn in your suburban home for your children to play on.  Have you just violated provisions of the Clean Water Act regarding wetlands preservation?  Are you sure?  Chantell and Mike Sackett thought they were.  The EPA thought otherwise.

Run a restaurant and get a shipment of fish.  Did that shipment violate laws in the country of origin (like, say, shipping in plastic rather than in cardboard boxes–an actual example)?  Congratulations.  Thanks to the Lacey Act, just like seafood dealers Robert Blandford, Diane Huang, and David McNab, you are now in violation of the law because of what someone else shipped to you.

Laws, laws, and more laws.  The US code (which can be downloaded from the Federal government) comes to 184 megabytes of text in PDF format.  Call it 30 million words give or take; how fast a reader are you?  In addition, the Federal Register–a collection of regulations written not by Congress, but by unelected career bureaucrats–was up to 81,611 pages in 2015.  Given the rate at which both laws and regulations are updated, it is not physically possible for someone to read them all before they’ve changed.  It’s like the old cliche of the Marching Chinese. (Ripley’s Believe it or Not had this bit where it claimed that if you had the Chinese lining up four abreast and marching past a given point, that line would never stop because of the Chinese born and growing up adding to the line.  The truth, is perhaps different, but it’s a useful concept in this context.)  The attempt to read them, let alone understand them, is never done because of laws and regulations that have changed since you’ve started.

One cannot be certain of being a law abiding individual because one cannot know what the law requires.  And there are so many hidden little traps, things that one would not reasonably expect to be a violation of the law but that actually is, that virtually everyone is going to trip over one sometimes.

And so, coupled with yesterday’s commentary about how one cannot be confident that innocence will protect you from punishment by the law, neither can one be confident that one is actually innocent as far as the law is concerned.

And both of these are extremely damaging to the very concept of Rule of Law.

One thought on “Are you a criminal?”

  1. Excellent use of the “Marching Chinese” metaphor! And you’re right – I think I read somewhere that the average citizen violates something like fifteen Federal laws a day, just going about his business (that’s /just/ Federal! Not counting state, county, or city…)

    I have a project I need to pick back up – I had downloaded the entirety of Federal law as plaintext, and was working on editing it (mostly taking a red pen to that rubbish) with an eye toward submitting it to a few Congresscritters and a couple of think tanks. I’m willing to bet a cool third could be rescinded out of hand with minimal to no social effect (if not half.) That’s just US Code – Code of Federal Regulations is likely the same – and I was just going to delete the Federal Register stuff and rescind the “Publishing Rule” – where if something is published in the Federal Register and not challenged in 180 days – Presto! – it’s a law! It’s not just unelected bureaucrats that use that, it’s also a back door for Congress, from time to time…

    My rule on editing law? “Measure with a micrometer. Mark with chalk. Cut with an axe.” This is getting ridiculous.


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