Overcriminalization: Congressional Research Service Doesn't Have The Manpower To List All Federal Crimes

from the perhaps-we-have-too-many dept

A new video from the Cato Institute discusses the issue of overcriminalization, which is quite interesting:
The video discusses the book Three Felonies a Day by Harvey Silvergate, which we've mentioned in the past. However, a point that was perhaps more stunning was mentioning how Rep. James Sensenbrenner asked the Congressional Research Service to list out the criminal offenses under federal law, and they refused, saying it would be too much work:
The task force staff asked the Congressional Research Service to update the calculation of criminal offenses in the federal code, which was last undertaken in 2008, said task force chairman Representative John Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.)

"CRS's initial response to our request was that they lack the manpower and resources to accomplish this task," Sensenbrenner said Friday. "I think this confirms the point that all of us have been making on this issue and demonstrates the breadth of overcriminalization."
There's clearly something very, very wrong about a criminal code where the governmental agency charged with doing basic research for Congress finds it too big a task to list out all of the crimes listed under federal law. At that point, you no longer have a "rule of law." You have a system of loopholes and gotchas, with enough tricks and traps that anyone can be made into a criminal if the authorities decide that's what they want to do. This isn't to suggest that law enforcement regularly goes after people with trumped up charges -- I don't think they do. However, it does happen sometimes. But, far more common, and equally worrisome, is how this allows law enforcement to pile on additional charges and potential punishment for people accused of relatively minor crimes.


Reader Comments (rss)

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    Ninja (profile), Jul 19th, 2013 @ 7:00am

    The legal madness is not peculiar to the US. There was an initiative here in Brazil where they printed all the legislation aimed at altering, enacting or revoking taxes as some sort of protest. JUST TAXES. The result was a pile with 1,8m x 1,6m x 2m approximately (height x width x depth) in the last decade.

    Holy tree devastation, Batman!

    And then you can't claim lack of knowledge of the law...

     

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    Coogan (profile), Jul 19th, 2013 @ 7:58am

    "Please, Mr Government. Can you provide me with a list of all crimes? I would like to make sure I do not trespass against those laws."

    "Sorry, we can't provide that information. Way too much work."

    "But how can I be sure that I'm not breaking any laws"

    "We're constantly monitoring your email, phone calls, and your location. We know what library books you check out and can get your credit card and banking data whenever we want. If we suspect you broke a law, we'll arrest you."

    "Arrest me!? But then I'd have to spend money on bail, on a lawyer, and take time off from work. All because you suspect I may have committed a crime?"

    "Freedom ain't free, sir."

    "But that's not freedom."

    "Sorry, it's my lunch break."

    This is a Bloom County comic strip waiting to happen...

     

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      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Jul 19th, 2013 @ 8:15am

      Re:

      I see it more like:
      "I would like a list of all laws so that I can be sure not to break any."
      "Sorry, there are too many for us to list them all."

      "Sorry, I didn't know I was breaking a law."
      "Ignorance of the law doesn't excuse you from it."

       

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        Coogan (profile), Jul 19th, 2013 @ 8:40am

        Re: Re:

        There's a very deep rabbit hole you could go down when forming an internal dialogue about this subject, and it gets ever more complex and tragic the deeper you go.

        It's truly amazing, the divide between what the government expects of you and how much they can punish you for not meeting their expectations. In many cases, even if you ultimately win, you're still in far worse shape than you were before, with little chance of ever being "made whole" again.

         

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        bosconet (profile), Jul 19th, 2013 @ 10:41am

        Re: Re:

        EXACTLY!!!!

        I think someone needs to document "crimes" committed (innocently) by Federal judges to illustrate that the theory of "ignorance of the law is now excuse" is a hopelessly outdated concept.

         

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          Anonymous Coward, Jul 19th, 2013 @ 11:42am

          Re: Re: Re:

          A much better Idea would be to go after congress critters for all crimes that they commit.` That is more likely to get the survivors focused on sorting out the law.

           

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      Anonymous Coward, Jul 19th, 2013 @ 9:09am

      Re:

      We need a sad but true button ...

       

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    Anonymous Coward, Jul 19th, 2013 @ 8:09am

    You say this like it's not the end goal of a proto-fascist state.

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Jul 19th, 2013 @ 9:20am

      Re:

      I know. The front-men have pretty much given up pretending democracy, so why should writers and pundits?

       

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    Anonymous Coward, Jul 19th, 2013 @ 8:09am

    Says Congressman John Sensenbrenner, who helped write the incredibly vague laws that make every American commit 3 felonies a day.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jul 19th, 2013 @ 8:11am

    There's clearly something very, very wrong about a criminal code where the governmental agency charged with doing basic research for Congress finds it too big a task to list out all of the crimes listed under federal law.

    Or, they simply don't have the manpower or resources to do it, as they said. If you task someone to do something, but then give them too few resources to accomplish it, isn't it your fault for not giving them the resources they need to accomplish the task you've asked of them?

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Jul 19th, 2013 @ 9:24am

      Re:

      Isn't the fact that it would take a federal sales tax to fund the cataloguing of federal crimes enough of an indicator to show there just may be an issue here?

       

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      Michael, Jul 19th, 2013 @ 9:51am

      Re:

      Or, they simply don't have the manpower or resources to do it, as they said

      The fact that THEY DO NOT ALREADY HAVE IT is a huge problem. Our lawmakers don't have a list of the existing laws?

       

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      Pitabred (profile), Jul 19th, 2013 @ 9:55am

      Re:

      If they don't have enough manpower or resources to do it, how can they expect the average American to follow said laws when we've got other stuff we're doing?

      We're all individually expected to adhere to the laws that they don't have enough manpower to figure out.

       

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      John Fenderson (profile), Jul 19th, 2013 @ 9:55am

      Re:

      OK, fine. But if they can't list the crime, then they should also not be allowed to enforce it. Fair is fair.

       

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        Anonymous Coward, Jul 19th, 2013 @ 11:41am

        Re: Re:

        Forcing the Congressional Research Service to enforce laws would seem a bit untraditional. ;)

        The pain of planning the future of a country: The better you protect the system against stupid politicians doing overreaching powergrabs/corruption, the more of an inflexible and politically unaccountable system you end up with.

         

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          John Fenderson (profile), Jul 19th, 2013 @ 12:07pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          I'm not so sure that's the tradeoff required, but even if it is, I'd much rather have a relatively inflexible system that made it harder to hold individuals accountable than a system like we have now, where corruption is simple and widely accepted as simply the way things are done.

           

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    Coogan (profile), Jul 19th, 2013 @ 8:21am

    If you task someone to do something, but then give them too few resources to accomplish it, isn't it your fault for not giving them the resources they need to accomplish the task you've asked of them?

    If they have the resources to enforce these laws, it stands to reason that they have the resources to list them all out.

     

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      Vidiot (profile), Jul 19th, 2013 @ 9:10am

      Re:

      The point is more about the sheer volume; the Congressional Research Service isn't being faulted here. Far from it... they often turn up as heroes in these stories, for researching and reporting in purely factual terms, without bias, with a result that enrages one or another political group. In this case, their apolitical, manpower-based refusal is a damning indictment of the state of our laws. Maybe some of those food stamp savings could be used to hire a subcontractor to undertake this project...

       

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    nbcart (profile), Jul 19th, 2013 @ 9:57am

    Any Crime, One Punishment

    It is interesting how "fiction" eventually becomes closer to our reality. In 1987, an episode of Star Trek (TNG) had a storyline of a planet where all infractions of the established laws were punishable by death.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Justice_(Star_Trek:_The_Next_Generation)

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jul 19th, 2013 @ 2:00pm

    This is a problem with the system since in all other countries they have the same problem and has been a problem since antiguity.

    You think that after 2000 years people would learn not to make laws to govern every single aspect of life, but find mechanisms that passively drive people to obey certain rules.

    Nature apparently can do better without laws at all.
    http://www.wired.com/opinion/2013/07/what-ants-yes-know-that-we-dont-the-future-of-networking/

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jul 19th, 2013 @ 2:26pm

    This isn't to suggest that law enforcement regularly goes after people with trumped up charges

    With the amount of laws in existence today, trumping up charges is no longer necessary, although it does happen with enough frequency (for every Aaron Schwartz - just dogpiling on every offense they can find on the books - that makes the headline, there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, that get lost in the mass of information today). Nowadays it's more a matter of ignoring the more "meaningless" laws (jaywalking and spitting on the sidewalk are still technically against the law in many places) than actually trying to trump up charges.

     

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    McCrea (profile), Jul 19th, 2013 @ 4:37pm

    ignorance of the law

    I thought that's why they have always said "ignorance of the law is no excuse". Although, WP doesn't seem to indicate the purpose was to proved for entrapment nor hypocrisy, but it's always been obvious to me.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ignorantia_juris_non_excusat

    Ah, The One Law? "Everything about law I learned from one legal maxim"

     

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