Too Many Laws to Keep Straight

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 18, 2010 | Go to article overview

Too Many Laws to Keep Straight


Byline: Roger Lott, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

With a good, honest conscience, you may think you have nothing to fear from the law. Think again. There's a good chance you're a criminal.

One Nation Under Arrest is the combined work of 12 contributors, all of whom (including The Washington Times' Quin Hillyer), are veteran practitioners or writers on the law. The first half of the book presents compelling examples of good, honest people getting on the wrong side of the law. The second half examines the history of criminal law, the concepts of blameworthiness and intent, white-collar crime and needed reforms.

As society has grown ever more complex, so, too, has the American legal system. There are just too many laws for people to keep track of, and yet we are told time and again that ignorance of the law is no excuse. This old maxim was appropriate back when crimes included only immoral acts such as murder, rape and theft, where criminal intent is obviously present. Today, expecting people to have an awareness of all the laws means punishing a lot of fundamentally innocent people.

The book starts with the story of David McNab, a Honduran fisherman who hardly had criminal intent when he shipped spiny lobsters to the United States in plastic bags. Yet, when one of his shipments was intercepted in 1999, he was found to be in violation of a Honduran regulation prescribing cardboard boxes as the only legal container for exporting seafood. His 70,000-pound shipment was confiscated and taken to a giant freezer. Some of the lobsters were found to have undersized tails and traces of eggs, and prosecutors pressed charges for violating Honduran laws banning the harvesting of eggs and of lobsters with tails shorter than 5 1/2 inches.

On the basis of the Lacey Act, which prohibits taking wildlife in violation of foreign regulations, the U.S. government pressed charges against Mr. McNab and the three Americans who would have received the lobsters. Using laws intended to fight drugs and organized crime, prosecutors claimed there was a criminal conspiracy to smuggle the seafood in transparent plastic bags. In August 2001, three were sentenced to eight-year prison terms while one got only two years.

After the conviction, Mr. McNab's attorneys found that the Honduran law authorizing the packaging regulations had been repealed in 1995, the restriction on lobster-tail size was not actually a law because the Honduran president hadn't signed it, and the prohibition on harvesting eggs was supposed to apply only to intentional, rather than accidental, harvesting. Two of the three appellate judges dismissed the Honduran testimony to this effect, finding Honduras unfit to interpret its own laws.

Many laws are so broad that the government cannot realistically prosecute every violation and therefore has to engage in selective enforcement. The book describes the case of 61-year-old Kay Leibrand of Palo Alto, Calif., who was arrested for refusing to trim her hedges to make them in accordance with the 2-foot height limit set by the city government. Yet there were likely hundreds of other violations elsewhere in the city left unaddressed. Such disproportionate treatment is unfair and immoral. …

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