Thursday, July 31, 2008
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Louisiana State Senator Derrick Shepherd gets in a tussle with his girlfriend over the weekend and he's hauled off to federal court. Is there any violation of the law that is not considered a federal offense? If anyone actually takes the time to read the U.S. Constitution, there are only three crimes specifically enumerated. Treason, piracy and counterfeiting. So why has Congress undertaken an overzealous expansion of criminal laws?
A report from the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Legal and Judicial Studies recently determined that there are some 4500 federal crimes listed in the US Code. It used to be that Congress would create one particular crime by passing a new law. But in recent years, multiple crimes are listed within the same statute. One new law enacted right after 9/11 contained 60 new crimes. Were they really necessary?
Our representatives in Washington now want to delve into any number of local crimes, flaunting the intention of our country's founders. Drugs, robbery, car theft, the list goes on and on. What happened to the 14th amendment and states rights?
Many of the federal crimes seem to be punitive, arbitrary and bewildering. Harvard law professor William Stuntz puts it this way: "We are coming even closer to living in a country where laws on the books makes everybody a felon, and prosecutors get to decide what the law is and who has violated it."
Did you know that it is a federal crime to deal in the interstate transport of unlicensed dentures? For this you get one year in jail.
How about the fact that you can go to jail for six months if you pretend to be a member of the 4-H club? I'm not making this up.
You can also get six months for degrading the character of Woodsy Owl, or his associated slogan: "Give a hoot -- Don't pollute.”
And you'll love this one. It is a federal crime to disrupt a rodeo. Now in Louisiana, we yield to no one in our desire for orderly rodeos. But a federal crime? Give me a break!
You can see from these examples, it's not a liberal or conservative thing. Many of the laws listed make little sense. In this day and age, the average citizen can get hauled off to jail for trivial things that no sane person would regard as a crime at all. There is a new alliance in Washington. An unholy alliance between anti-big business liberals, and tough-on-crime conservatives. They all seem to be trying to show that they are serious prognosticators cracking down on the social problem of the month, whether it be corporate scandals or steroid use.
The Louisiana legislative delegation is not immune from federalitis, and has joined in the parade of parochialism within the federal system. Senator David Vitter has proposed legislation to make it a felony for the interstate sale of paraphernalia that straps on a rooster’s leg during a cock fight. And Senator Mary Landrieu wants to ban the transportation of horses across state lines to be shipped out of the country for consumption. Can we just imagine the future disruption of our American way of life if their efforts are unsuccessful?
Our members of Congress go to Washington today and seem to be immediately aphrodisized with the power they obtain. Something similar to Tolkien's ring. Often decent and intelligent people who get the ring of power and it changes them. They can't put it down; they can't let it go. The more laws you pass, the better you look back home. And when there's crime involved, you really come across as a tough guy, right?
Many members of Congress seem not to understand the difference between violation of a regulation and a crime. But there are a number of actions that are illegal but not criminal, and if criminal, then do not necessarily have to be federally criminal. Have we reached the point where people in Louisiana and throughout the country have come to accept that any federal agency with power is somehow a police power? Both conservatives and liberals ought to be worried about the expansion of federal criminal law if we value our liberty, which our Founders specifically understood to mean leaving general police powers at the local level.
In 400 B.C., the Greek orator Isocrates stated: "Where there is a multitude of specific laws, it is a sign that the state is badly governed." Tasedus wrote in the 1st century A.D. of Rome: “Formerly we suffered from crimes. Now we suffer from laws."
A little common sense, often not attributed to Washington, would go a long way in allowing Congress to deal with problems of national concern. Leave the parochial to the states. And for goodness sake, let us get a little rowdy at our rodeos.
“Herein is the most dangerous power of the prosecutor;
that he will pick people he thinks he should get,
rather than cases that need to be prosecuted.
With the law books filled with a great assortment
of crimes, a prosecutor stands a fair chance of finding at
least a technical violation of some act on the part of
Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson
Peace and Justice.
Jim Brown’s weekly column appears in a number of newspapers and websites throughout the State of Louisiana. You can read Jim’s Blog, and take his weekly poll, plus read his columns going back to the fall of 2002 by going to his own website at http://www.jimbrownla.com/.
Jim’s radio show on WRNO (995 fm) from New Orleans can be heard each Sunday, from 11:00 am until 1:00 pm.