The federal criminal code has grown so large it ensnares everyday citizens who have no idea they are violating the law, a bipartisan group of legal experts told a House panel Tuesday.
There are about 4,500 criminal statutes, said Edwin Meese, attorney general under President Ronald Reagan and now with the conservative Heritage Foundation. "This is in addition to over 300,000 other regulations that don't appear in the federal code but nevertheless carry essentially criminal penalties including prison," he said. "So the vast array of traps for the unwary that lurks out there in federal criminal law is more extensive than most people realize." The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts figures some 80,000 defendants are sentenced in federal court each year.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R., Wis.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's panel on crime, terrorism and homeland security,and several panelists cited an article in Monday's Wall Street Journal, part of a yearlong series about the expansion of the federal criminal code and the erosion of "criminal intent" requirements. The article chronicled the conviction of one Maryland man for actions prosecutors said weren't intentional. It explained how Lawrence Lewis ended up with a federal criminal record while trying to deal with clogged toilets at a military retirement home in Washington, D.C.
"He was subject to the same law that [would apply to] somebody who knowingly, willingly dumped toxic materials into a navigable water," said Mr. Sensenbrenner, who has introduced a bill to shrink the federal criminal code by a third and to define the level of criminal intent necessary to break the law.