Overcriminalization and Sentencing
For centuries, a bedrock principle of criminal law has held that people must know they are doing something wrong before they can be found guilty. The concept is known as mens rea, Latin for a "guilty mind."Click here to read the entire story.
This legal protection is now being eroded as the U.S. federal criminal code dramatically swells. In recent decades, Congress has repeatedly crafted laws that weaken or disregard the notion of criminal intent. Today not only are there thousands more criminal laws than before, but it is easier to fall afoul of them.
As a result, what once might have been considered simply a mistake is now sometimes punishable by jail time. When the police came to Wade Martin's home in Sitka, Alaska, in 2003, he says he had no idea why. Under an exemption to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, coastal Native Alaskans such as Mr. Martin are allowed to trap and hunt species that others can't. That included the 10 sea otters he had recently sold for $50 apiece.
Mr. Martin, 50 years old, readily admitted making the sale. "Then, they told me the buyer wasn't a native," he recalls.
The law requires that animals sold to non-Native Alaskans be converted into handicrafts. He knew the law, Mr. Martin said, and he had thought the buyer was Native Alaskan.
He pleaded guilty in 2008. The government didn't have to prove he knew his conduct was illegal, his lawyer told him. They merely had to show he had made the sale.
"I was thinking, damn, my life's over," Mr. Martin says.
Federal magistrate Judge John Roberts gave him two years' probation and a $1,000 fine. He told the trapper: "You're responsible for the actions that you take."
Mr. Martin now asks customers to prove their heritage and residency. "You get real smart after they come to your house and arrest you and make you feel like Charles Manson," he says.
The U.S. Attorney's office in Alaska didn't respond to requests for comment.
Back in 1790, the first federal criminal law passed by Congress listed fewer than 20 federal crimes. Today there are an estimated 4,500 crimes in federal statutes, plus thousands more embedded in federal regulations, many of which have been added to the penal code since the 1970s.
One controversial new law can hold animal-rights activists criminally responsible for protests that cause the target of their attention to be fearful, regardless of the protesters' intentions. Congress passed the law in 2006 with only about a half-dozen of the 535 members voting on it.
Under English common law principles, most U.S. criminal statutes traditionally required prosecutors not only to prove that defendants committed a bad act, but also that they also had bad intentions. In a theft, don't merely show that the accused took someone's property, but also show that he or she knew it belonged to someone else.
Over time, lawmakers have devised a sliding scale for different crimes. For instance, a "willful" violation is among the toughest to prove.
Requiring the government to prove a willful violation is "a big protection for all of us," says Andrew Weissmann, a New York attorney who for a time ran the Justice Department's criminal investigation of Enron Corp. Generally speaking in criminal law, he says, willful means "you have the specific intent to violate the law."
A lower threshold, attorneys say, involves proving that someone "knowingly" violated the law. It can be easier to fall afoul of the law under these terms...
Overall, more than 40% of nonviolent offenses created or amended during two recent Congresses—the 109th and the 111th, the latter of which ran through last year—had "weak" mens rea requirements at best, according to a study conducted by the conservative Heritage Foundation and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The study, one of the few to examine mens rea, was extended to include the most recent Congress at the request of The Wall Street Journal.
Earlier this year, Justice Antonin Scalia, in a dissent from a Supreme Court decision upholding a firearms-related conviction, wrote that Congress "puts forth an ever-increasing volume" of imprecise criminal laws and criticized lawmakers for passing too much "fuzzy, leave-the-details-to-be-sorted-out-by-the-courts" legislation.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle worry about the weakening of mens rea. "Over my six years in Congress there have been many times when in discussions with members of Congress I say, 'Look, I know you want to show people how serious you are about crime, but don't put anything on the books that doesn't require criminal intent,'" says Rep. Louie Gohmert, (R., Tex.) a former state judge who wants the federal system reworked.
In a 2009 Judiciary subcommittee hearing on the growth of federal criminal law, Rep. Bobby Scott (D., Va.)., said that mens rea had long served "an important role in protecting those who do not intend to commit wrongful or criminal acts from prosecution and conviction."
The growing number of federal laws with weakened mens rea safeguards is making the venerable legal principle that ignorance of the law is no defense a much riskier proposition for people. That principle made sense, says University of Virginia law professor Anne Coughlin, when there were fewer criminal laws, like murder, and most people could be expected to know them.
But when legislators "criminalize everything under the sun," Ms. Coughlin says, it's unrealistic to expect citizens to be fully informed about the penal code." With reduced intent requirements "suddenly it opens a whole lot of people to being potential violators."