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.

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

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26 Comments
Ninja (profile) says:

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…

Coogan (profile) says:

“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…

Coogan (profile) says:

Re: 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.

Anonymous Coward says:

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?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: 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.

Vidiot (profile) says:

Re: 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…

Anonymous Coward says:

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/

Anonymous Coward says:

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.

McCrea (profile) says:

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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