Posts Tagged ‘overcriminalization’

Undoing overcriminalization

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

So I saw this opinion piece in USA Today by Glenn Harlan Reynolds, titled “You Are Probably Breaking the Law Right Now: When lawmakers don’t even know how many laws exist, how can citizens be expected to follow them?” It joins a growing tide of public awareness about overcriminalization in the U.S. — especially at the federal level — and that’s a good thing. (It also joins a growing number of pieces that use bird feathers as their lead example of serious stupid crimes ever since my little comic on the topic went mildly viral back in 2012 — and that’s also a good thing.)

What struck me was that this was in USA Today, of all places — arguably the nation’s most accessible newspaper, with the broadest audience. It’s not the paper of snooty elites or masters of the universe — it’s Everyman’s paper. That means the word is starting to get out for real. Once the general population starts hearing about overcriminalization, and more importantly realizing that it can affect them personally — it’s only a matter of time before they start calling their congressmen to do something about it.

The time seems more ripe than ever. The past few years have seen a rapidly growing public awareness of police abuses. Something happened to the police while we weren’t paying attention, and now we’re all starting to see a nation filled with highly militarized police forces, police who see the rest of us as their adversaries rather than their masters, police eager to swipe our assets and make collars for dollars… and a realization that this excessive power is being used against “good guys” just as much as those bad guys nobody cares about. Add some basic familiarity with overcriminalization in this country, and you’re going to get a lot of people worried about militarized SWAT teams taking them down for crimes they didn’t even know they’d committed. (In other words, what’s already been happening for years.)

Awareness is necessary before anything can change, of course. So more articles like this (and podcasts and blog posts and hashtags and…) would be a good thing. Spread the word. And then maybe we’ll be able to make some headway. Maybe over a generation or two we might see some moderation of our criminal laws. Or who knows, maybe even take our foot off the accelerator of police powers a smidge? (It’s happened before, after all.) Maybe these could start to be realistic goals to shoot for!

Those were the initial musings I had when I first saw Reynolds’ piece today. But here endeth the serious part of this post, because my thoughts that immediately followed were just, well… silly.

I started to daydream. I imagined such a public outcry against too much police power, too many crimes on the books, and other abuses of the criminal justice system, that critical mass was reached. The tide turned. Progressive politicians who previously clamored to outlaw everything they didn’t like, now fought to shout loudest against the use of criminal law to punish human beings for mere civil and regulatory ends. Reactionary politicians who had once competed to look “tough on crime” by ratcheting up police powers and punishments, now vied with one another to deflate the excessive might of the State and protect individuals from unlimited government.

Far-fetched, I know. But it got worse.

A president was elected on a platform of total reform. Congress was tasked with completely overhauling the federal criminal code — throwing it all out and starting from scratch, eliminating everything that was duplicative, poorly thought out, vague, and stupid. Eliminating every regulatory crime created by the unelected bureaucrats, and requiring that only elected representatives could criminalize anything. Requiring a mens rea element for every offense. Standardizing the terminology and drafting of criminal statutes. Withholding federal funding from states and municipalities that failed to adopt policing reform grounded on the principle that police are civilians, and all the other civilians are on their same team, and most importantly requiring that there be zero financial incentive whatsoever — either to the officer or to the police department — to engage in any detention or seizure. And so forth and so on.

And the people rejoiced. Things got better.

Silly, right? Well, at least a guy can daydream. Now back to work.

[H/T Walter Olson]

Let’s Make a New Law!

Thursday, October 24th, 2013

Any moderately well-informed person these days is aware of the shocking injustices that happen whenever criminal laws get written by people who don’t really understand what criminal law is, or how it works. (Brilliant summary here.) They tend to create crimes that are ill-defined, overbroad, and usually an overreaction to the perceived harm. The results can be pretty bad.

How much more cause for concern, then, when the proposed crime violates not only the fundamental principles of criminal jurisprudence, but cherished individual rights that have nothing to do with crime?

And how much more cause for concern, then, when those who catch potential problems are not engaged in thoughtful debate, but are instead shouted down and accused of malicious and reprehensible conduct?

It looks like that’s what’s been going on recently in an ongoing debate over proposed “Revenge Porn” legislation that’s floating around out there. At first the shenanigans were amusing to watch, but lately it’s turned into a distressing train wreck online. A law has been proposed in reaction to something with a lot of emotional pull, thoughtful people have voiced concerns that it may be a bad law, and its proponents have responded less with reasoned debate than with emotional backlash. Those who disagree are shouted down as stalkers and assholes; their comments are deleted so that others may not see them.

Ignoring whether either side is right or wrong, what a terrible blow this has been to the credibility of the law’s proponents. Think how insecure they must be in their own assertions to react so defensively. How much confidence can than inspire in the rest of us?


“Revenge Porn” is pretty much what it sounds like. You’re in a relationship with someone, they let you have some nude pix, then there’s a breakup and you feel bitter and to get back at them you post their nudes online for the world to see. It’s a nasty, cruel thing to do. It’s not hard to imagine society thinking the practice to be so bad that it deserves to be punished. It’s easy, in other words, to see Revenge Porn as something that might be criminalized.

Some law professors have been pushing a model statute that would criminalize the practice. So far, no big deal. This is something that law professors are expected to do.

None appear to be professors or practitioners of criminal law, though. That’s not encouraging. Those reviewing the language will therefore probably want to keep an extra-sharp lookout for things like imprecise (or missing) mens rea, over-inclusive definitions, and conflated or confused concepts, etc. Nothing personal, just a normal precaution. You get this stuff all the time.

An extra wrinkle comes from the fact that posting a nude picture of your ex counts as “speech” for First Amendment purposes. And the First Amendment doesn’t let the government criminalize speech, except in very tightly controlled circumstances. Even the most awful, painful, hurtful and distressing speech (such as that of the Westboro Baptist “Church”) is not something that gets criminalized in this country.


This is a criminal law blog, not a First Amendment forum, and so it’d be somewhat off-topic to get into whether or not Revenge Porn is something that can be criminalized without running afoul of Freedom of Speech. But it is pertinent to note that the professors’ interpretation of the 1st Amendment here is not universal — and it is also relevant to examine how they have reacted to the ensuing disagreement.

To be fair, the law’s proponents are from academia, where disagreement (often) = bullying and criticism (sometimes) = hate speech. Where speech is generally not very well protected, in the first place. Where debate can be frowned upon and contrary points of view shouted down, removed from newspaper bins, at times even persecuted and hounded out. You ain’t seen petty vindictiveness until you’ve seen someone challenge the orthodoxy. You don’t get this from the better professoriate, of course — there are plenty of wonderful academics who welcome healthy debate, the chance to make their case or (as the case may be) get a new point of view. But there are plenty of others who prefer to point to their credentials and their peer-acceptance as proof of their correctness, and who get the most defensive when challenged.

You can usually tell which kind of academic you’re dealing with based on how they react to a contrary position. The ones who are pushing the Revenge Porn law, sadly, seem to be falling into the lesser camp so far. This is not good for their credibility.

So to the extent that First Amendment practitioners are in dispute with these particular academics, one might be inclined to conclude that the practitioners could perhaps be more likely to be correct.


But again, this is a criminal law blog. So how does the law look from the perspective of our criminal jurisprudence?

Not… not so great.

Here’s what the model statute says:

Whoever intentionally discloses a photograph, film, videotape, recording, or any other reproduction of the image of another person whose intimate parts are exposed or who is engaged in an act of sexual contact without that person’s consent, under circumstances in which the person has a reasonable expectation of privacy, commits a crime. A person who has consented to the capture or possession of an image within the context of a private or confidential relationship retains a reasonable expectation of privacy with regard to disclosure beyond that relationship.

(a) Definitions: For the purposes of this section,
1) “disclose” means sell, manufacture, give, provide, lend, trade, mail, deliver, transfer, publish, distribute, circulate, disseminate, present, exhibit, advertise or offer.
2) “intimate parts” means the naked genitals, pubic area, buttocks, or female adult nipple of the person.
3) “sexual contact” means sexual intercourse, including genital-genital, oral-genital, anal-genital, or oral-anal, whether between persons of the same or opposite sex.

(b) Exceptions:
1) This section shall not apply to lawful and common practices of law enforcement, the reporting of unlawful conduct, or legal proceedings.
2) This section shall not apply to situations involving voluntary exposure in public or commercial settings.


Holy cannoli, where to begin…?

The first problem is one of good old mens rea: It criminalizes disclosing the image without the subject’s consent, regardless of whether the actor knew about it one way or the other, or meant to do so without consent. It criminalizes the act where the subject had a reasonable expectation of privacy, regardless of whether the actor knew or had any reason to know it. The only mens rea here is whether the image was disclosed intentionally.

It’s a strict liability crime. Whenever you see that, huge red flags should be popping up in your head screaming “INJUSTICE AHEAD!” Sure it doesn’t criminalize accidentally dropping a photo out of your wallet, but it does criminalize showing it to people with the mistaken belief that your wife was cool with it — or without the knowledge that she had since changed her mind.

The second problem is one of conflated concepts. “Reasonable expectation of privacy” is a concept of Fourth Amendment law — of procedural rights, not of criminal liability. It is a term of art that has been defined in a fairly convoluted fashion over the years in such a way that the average layman couldn’t give you an accurate definition of the phrase if his life depended on it. His liberty would depend on it, here. The authors probably don’t mean for this phrase to have the meaning & baggage it carries in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. They just think it sounds good. And so there is inherent confusion in the statutory language. It is not clear what is actually meant here. And where there is vagueness in criminal law, where there is room for interpretation, there is room for cops and prosecutors to screw over the regular Joe. And if you don’t think that happens, you’re not getting out enough. When you see conflated concepts and room for interpretation, those red flags ought to be screaming at you even louder.

The third problem is one of unclear writing. Seriously, what do the “consent” and “reasonable expectation of privacy” clauses modify? Does this refer to images that are disclosed without consent, or taken without consent? Does this refer to images that were disclosed under circumstances where someone had an expectation of privacy, or taken under such circumstances? Is it criminalizing pictures of sexual acts that were nonconsensual? What about images that were taken by someone else, and then given to you by your ex? What about images that someone else forwarded to you, or you found online, and had no way of knowing whether they were consensually/privately taken or disclosed (whichever verb applies)? It can be read all of these different ways.

There is literally no way of knowing for sure what conduct is criminalized here. As written, it outlaws all kinds of behavior its authors probably didn’t mean to punish. It is overbroad as hell. You hear those red flags? Since when do flags scream? These are. Get some earplugs.

Strictly from a criminal perspective, this is a god-awful statute. It’s another one of those “think of the children” “take back the night” “let’s name a statute after the victim” kinds of legislation that pave an eight-lane superhighway to hell with their good intentions.


You want a statute that works? (Again, ignoring any First Amendment concerns.) Here’s one I banged out in court this morning while waiting for a case to be called. Zero research or deep thought went into it:



(A) “Private Sexual Image” = any media containing:

(i) an image taken in a non-public place, and in a non-commercial setting…

(ii) of a living person whose identity is readily ascertained from the contents of the image…

(iii) and depicting that person’s unclothed genitalia, buttocks, or female breasts, or depicting that person engaged in sexual intercourse, oral sex, manual-genital contact, or other such sexual behavior…

(iv) and which has not previously been “distributed” as that word is defined herein.


(B) “Distribute” = make publicly available by any means, including displaying in public or in a publicly-accessible medium, sharing via any communication or peer-to-peer arrangement, and any other method that makes a duplicate of the image available to others. Excluded are private acts of showing the image, without duplication or transmission, to individuals or small groups of people.



Any person who, with the intent to harass, shame, or defame another person:

(1) distributes an image he knows, or a reasonable person similarly situated would know, to be a Private Sexual Image of that other person;

(2) when he knows, or a reasonable person similarly situated would know, that he does so without the consent of that other person; and

(3) thereby does harass, shame or defame that other person

is guilty of a Fucking Nasty Crime.


Any person who, with the intent to harass, shame, or defame another person:

(1) distributes an image he knows, or a reasonable person similarly situated would know, to be a Private Sexual Image of that other person;

(2) when he knows, or a reasonable person similarly situated would know, that he does so without the consent of that other person

is guilty of a Nasty Crime.


Any person who

(1) intentionally distributes an image he knows, or a reasonable person similarly situated would know, to be a Private Sexual Image of another person;

(2) when he knows that, or recklessly disregards whether, he does so without the consent of that other person

is guilty of a Crime.



It shall be an affirmative defense to all of these crimes that, when the image in question was originally taken, it was reasonable to expect that it would later be viewed or possessed by people other than those who were a subject of the image, the person taking the image, and the person accused of distributing the image.

It shall be an affirmative defense to the Fucking Nasty crime that the image in question was transmitted to the accused via electronic or other means whereby the image could be “forwarded” or otherwise duplicated and transmitted to third parties.


There, quick and easy. There’s probably stuff to fix in there, as well, and again who knows if it’d pass constitutional muster on other grounds, but it’s hardly as overbroad or prone to injustice as the one those professors are promoting.

I bet you can do it even better. You are cordially invited to tear my suggestion apart in the comments, and provide your own language. Have at it!

On Overcriminalization: There’s nothing new under the sun

Monday, June 11th, 2012

As we’ve mentioned perhaps a dozen times by now, we do this illustrated guide to law in our rare moments of free time. (Latest post on self-defense law is here.) We make every effort to avoid citing case names or statutes in that guide, because they’re almost never necessary for an understanding of the actual concepts. We also try not to waste time on what the law used to be. It’s common for those who popularize specialized fields of knowledge to tell the story of how a given field has evolved, devoting the bulk of their writing to what people once thought, before getting to how things are right now — and we hate that. Cut to the chase, already!

But the next installment’s going to be about the sources of criminal law, and it would be sort of disingenuous to simply cut to the chase there (“elected officials pass statutes and ordinances, and agencies adopt regulations, now move along” — that’s not really the whole story, is it?). In this particular case, it seems necessary to at least summarize a history of how English and American criminal laws all came about. Because that history is still a big source of the criminal laws we deal with now — occasionally in weird ways.

It’s a fascinating history, and we’re barely going to touch on any of it in our comic. But the surprising thing is how rarely anyone has touched on it at all. The history of criminal procedures is extremely well-documented (and byzantine in its complexity); but if any of you are History majors looking for a topic for your senior thesis or a dissertation, we might just mention that the history of the laws defining crimes is far from exhausted, hint hint.

There are two or three halfway-intelligible histories out there, written during various centuries, and each author makes the same complaint that they’re writing in a vacuum. Each, however, refers heavily to Sir William Blackstone. So we were re-reading bits of his Of Public Wrongs this morning over our coffee (thank you Google Books!) when a thought started nagging in the back of our brain.

It was hard to pin down the idea, but then we had it: Overcriminalization. For a while now, people who pay attention to the law have complained that there are too many crimes, with irrationally high penalties, and that this leads not only to injustice but to the law itself losing its legitimacy. Lately, this idea has begun to gain traction among political types as well. People are starting to realize that, as we’ve written several times before, the problems come from a number of sources: vindictive laws being passed without much forethought in response to notorious one-off cases; progressive politicians outlawing more and more offensive behaviors; reactionary politicians ratcheting up the punishments for everything; and perhaps most insidious of all, unelected bureaucrats imposing criminal penalties on countless (and as yet uncounted) regulatory infractions. It’s so bad that nobody knows for sure what’s a crime and what isn’t, and especially in the federal system the penalties can far outweigh the severity of a given offense.

Why did reading Blackstone bring this to mind? Because apart from merely commenting on the state of the law in the mid-1700s, Blackstone was arguing for reform. He wanted a law that was more utilitarian, more deterrent than retaliatory, more enlightened — and above all, more simplified. He complained that the criminal law as it stood in his time was a tangle of writs and statutes, with new offenses being created all the time without anyone knowing about it. All the different sources of penal laws, and all the previously unknown offenses, were “a snare for the unwary.” The law had ratcheted up over the preceding centuries, so that the number of capital offenses was enormous, and severe punishments were prescribed for the pettiest offenses. All this led to judges refusing to impose the prescribed penalties, while at the same time leading to a growing contempt for criminal laws in general.

Yup, sure sounded familiar. Overcriminalization is something that just seems to … happen… in mature systems. In Blackstone’s time, it happened because of a rapidly-growing administrative role of government, because of officials trying to look tough on crime, because of vindictive one-off laws, because of not thinking things through, and because of simple intertia. Yup, totally familiar.

Still, whenever people start talking about overcriminalization, they don’t start throwing around old Blackstone quotes. Instead, they usually come out with an aphorism they ascribe to Tacitus: “The more numerous the laws, the more corrupt the government.” Which is unfortunate because (1) that phrasing implies a meaning that Tacitus did not intend; and (2) what the old boy really was saying was so much more apposite.

What was Tacitus saying in his Annals, Book III part 27? He’s talking about how the laws were getting out of hand in Ancient Rome:

Pulso Tarquinio adversum patrum factiones multa populus paravit tuendae libertatis et firmandae concordiae, creatique decemviri et accitis quae usquam egregia compositae duodecim tabulae, finis aequi iuris. nam secutae leges etsi aliquando in maleficos ex delicto, saepius tamen dissensione ordinum et apiscendi inlicitos honores aut pellendi claros viros aliaque ob prava per vim latae sunt. hinc Gracchi et Saturnini turbatores plebis nec minor largitor nomine senatus Drusus; corrupti spe aut inlusi per intercessionem socii. ac ne bello quidem Italico, mox civili omissum quin multa et diversa sciscerentur, donec L. Sulla dictator abolitis vel conversis prioribus, cum plura addidisset, otium eius rei haud in longum paravit, statim turbidis Lepidi rogationibus neque multo post tribunis reddita licentia quoquo vellent populum agitandi. iamque non modo in commune sed in singulos homines latae quaestiones, et corruptissima re publica plurimae leges.

Which my antique Church & Brodribb translation has as:

After Tarquin’s expulsion, the people, to check cabals among the Senators, devised many safeguards for freedom and for the establishment of unity. Decemvirs were appointed; everything specially admirable elsewhere was adopted, and the Twelve Tables drawn up, the last specimen of equitable legislation. For subsequent enactments, though occasionally directed against evildoers for some crime, were oftener carried by violence amid class dissensions, with a view to obtain honours not as yet conceded, or to banish distinguished citizens, or for other base ends. Hence the Gracchi and Saturnini, those popular agitators, and Drusus too, as flagrant a corrupter in the Senate’s name; hence, the bribing of our allies by alluring promises and the cheating them by tribunes vetoes. Even the Italian and then the Civil war did not pass without the enactment of many conflicting laws, till Lucius Sulla, the Dictator, by the repeal or alteration of past legislation and by many additions, gave us a brief lull in this process, to be instantly followed by the seditious proposals of Lepidus, and soon afterwards by the tribunes recovering their license to excite the people just as they chose. And now bills were passed, not only for national objects but for individual cases, and laws were most numerous when the commonwealth was most corrupt.

So he wasn’t saying “the more corrupt the government happens to be, the more laws there will be.” He was saying “there were ups and downs, but generally there was a strong correlation between how many criminal laws we had and how broken our government was at the time.” (The word “corrupt” having the older more general meaning of “debased, decayed, changed in bad ways” — the way we’d say “a corrupted hard drive” today — in addition to the more specific modern meaning of “venal, self-serving, bribe-taking etc.”)

And what Tacitus was saying in general was the same thing that Blackstone was saying: there were too many criminal laws, often conflicting, created not for the general need but in order to curry favor with the people, to react to one-off cases, etc. etc.

Yup, sure sounds familiar. Just like old Ecclesiastes said, “there’s nothing new under the sun.” (Or didn’t one of the Epicureans say that first? Or was it one of the older Vedas?)


Blackstone actually gives us some hope. For his proposed reforms actually were taken to heart — in the new United States, of all places. As the new states were formed, and began creating their laws practically from scratch, they were ideally suited to put these new progressive ideas in place. There was no hidebound tradition to adhere to, no entrenched bureaucracy to upend. Blackstone called for a stripped-down, principled criminal law, and American legal thinkers tried to make it so. Crime was (for the first time in history, really,) identified as an offense against the State, and not the more personal kind of moral offense or private conflict. Lawmakers and judges began to try to explicitly think through different levels of intent and culpability — not as thoroughly as would be done in the mid-20th Century, but still in significant ways. Deterrence replaced retaliation as the driving force of enlightened thought on punishment. These were not frontier hicks making the laws, but educated progressive thinkers well aware that they were creating something new, and trying to get it right the first time.

We don’t have a new nation to start from scratch again, but at least there is precedent for reform. England came around, too — if a bit more gradually. (We probably don’t want another Sulla, though.)

It’s happened before, it could happen again. There’s nothing new under the sun!




Exceeding Their Authority: When Bureaucrats Create New Crimes, Justice Suffers

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

One of our bugbears here at The Criminal Lawyer is the excessive number of federal crimes — particularly those that are created by regulators rather than by elected legislators. We’re not alone in this concern, and over the past several months we’ve noticed what can only be called a growing movement for reform.

A particular concern of ours has been the fact that an astonishing number of federal crimes lack any mens rea component. In other words, one can face prison even though their act was perfectly innocent — there was no intent to break the law whatsoever.

Mens rea is an essential part of American criminal justice. We don’t punish people simply because the committed some act or other, or even just because they harmed someone. Even if that harm was grievous. No, before we punish someone, there has to have been some culpability on their part. And culpability is defined by their mental state when they committed the act. There is a spectrum ranging from intentional through accidental, and the closer one was to the intentional end, the more severely we punish them. (If you want to be pedantic about it, there are a couple of other spectra of mental state as well — one’s ability to tell right from wrong, and one’s level of depravity — imagine them as the Y- and Z-axes to the X-axis of mens rea, if you like. But only mens rea is a component of crime itself — the others apply as defenses and as sentencing concerns.)

When defining a crime, here’s how it’s supposed to work: You specify what act you are forbidding, and you specify the mental state required to make it criminal — so bad that it deserves punishment. For example, if you plot to kill your neighbor, and succeed in killing him, then you are going to be punished far more harshly than a careless teenager who kills a family of four when he mistakenly runs a red light. Your act was more intentional, and thus more evil, than that of the teenager. Even though he did far more harm, you are more culpable, and thus your act is more criminal. And a man who accidentally trips on the sidewalk, knocking a little old lady into an oncoming bus? His act isn’t criminal at all. It was purely accidental, and unlike the teen driver he did not deviate from the normal standard of care to any extent that society would punish.

It is true that, as American jurisprudence evolved, there did arise certain “strict liability” crimes that have no mens rea requirement. Things like statutory rape. But those are exceptions to the rule, in the first place. And in the second place, the lack of mens rea is not really applicable — it usually has to do with elements of the crime that your own mental state could not affect one way or the other. For example, in the case of statutory rape, the issue is not whether you knew the girl was under the age of consent, but whether you had sex with someone without their consent — and someone under the age of consent, as a matter of law, cannot have consented to have sex with you. Your mens rea has nothing to do with whether or not she consented. It does not matter whether you knew she was underage, what matters is that she was underage, and thus you had sex with someone without their consent.

But though there were strict liability crimes, they were exceedingly rare.

Until regulators got involved.

Bureaucracy has a way of growing, and of expanding its own authority. Give an agency power to regulate, say, the mouse-pad industry, and they will start writing rules and procedures based on how mouse pads are actually produced and sold. Then they will start writing rules based on how the bureaucrats think mouse pads ought to be produced and sold, perhaps involving idealistic notions or academic fads. Meanwhile, they’ll busily craft tons and tons of rules and procedures micromanaging every aspect of how the main regulations are to be complied with. The number of regulations out there that Americans are expected to follow are uncountable, and nobody knows what’s in all of them. It’s beyond the capacity of the human brain to know what all the rules are.

And all of these rules have the force of law. Even though no elected official ever enacted them. The regulations are imposed, not by elected representatives who speak for (and must answer to) the citizenry, but by unelected government employees answerable to nobody.

That’s all well and good, when (more…)

Too Many Federal Crimes, Too Many without Mens Rea — Do We Have a Movement Yet?

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

We’ve posted several times about how there are just too many federal crimes, many created by regulatory fiat or otherwise without meaningful oversight by elected officials. About how a great many of them are apparently drafted by people with no understanding of how criminal law works and why. About how, as a result, there are an insane number of federal crimes (all felonies, of course) that penalize without any mens rea requirement at all. The most innocent accident, the most harmless and unintentional error, can make any honest and decent citizen a felon. (Sample posts here and here.)

We’re not the first to talk about it, by any means. We won’t be the last. But it’s starting to look like we’re reaching a tipping point — a critical mass of public awareness that might actually lead to … dare we say it … change?

Back in July, we cited a recent study that showed that, when a perception is firmly held by fewer than 10% of a population, it doesn’t really catch on. But for some reason, once the magical number of 10% is reached, the opinion spreads like wildfire. From obscurity, the idea suddenly becomes a majority view.

This 10% number pops up no matter what relevant population you’re looking at, no matter what social network. All that it takes to change the world is to have 10% of them be firmly committed, stubborn, and outspoken.

Over the rest of this summer, we’ve seen more and more references to this overcriminalization.  They’ve come mainly from the libertarian right and the defense bar, as one might expect, but it’s also been catching on in the mainstream press, left-leaning internet fora, and other places indicating that the idea is starting to take root in the general consciousness.

The last several days have seen a marked uptick in the topic. The New York Times cited it three days ago as a reason why people are taking pleas rather than going to trial. The Wall Street Journal has been doing a series on it, culminating yesterday in a long article on pretty much everything mentioned in the first paragraph of this post. And various bloggers and redditors and the like have been talking it up more than usual.

It’s starting to look less and less like a passionate few shouting in futile obscurity, and more and more like a movement.

Excellent. Let’s keep it up, shall we?


(Aside — If we were a Republican presidential candidate, we’d jump on this in a heartbeat. Not only would we be getting out in front of the movement, the better to be mistaken for a leader, but it would be a great way to repackage part of the platform. The present platform calling for less regulation comes off as a kind of “help out corporations at the expense of the people and the environment” thing. But make it a call for less regulation in the name of social justice — with plenty of anecdotal examples of real individuals who have been fucked by the fourth branch — and it becomes a populist battle cry. Just sayin’.)

The Ten-Percent Solution

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

At the close of yesterday’s post, we talked a little about how we’re starting to see signs of opposition to the insane quantity of federal crimes.  More and more people are starting to see how bad it really is, we noted — perhaps enough some day soon to reach a tipping point that results in actual change.

It would have to be a big freaking tipping point, though, wouldn’t it?  Current attitudes are rapidly swelling the numbers of crimes, and the tide is only rising.  Idealists push for criminalization of unsavory attitudes (see hate crimes). Crusaders criminalize failure to keep up with the crusade du jour (EPA, anyone?).  Pencil-pushers criminalize failure to comply with arbitrary procedures (see any random page of the C.F.R.).  The public cries out for crimes named after children, to punish everyone for an outlier result.  And politicians ratchet up the penalties so they don’t look “soft on crime.”  Overcoming such a mass of societal attitudes is a daunting prospect.

As it happens, though, societal change may not be as impossible as all that.  Science Daily now reports on a study showing that, when just 10% of a population holds a firm belief, that belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society.

When the number of committed opinion holders is below ten percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas.  It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority.


Once that number grows above ten percent, the idea (more…)

Too Many Crimes — Time for Change

Monday, July 25th, 2011

A few times, now, we’ve talked about how there are too many federal crimes, and how an enormous number of them are frankly unjust.  We’re just one of many voices crying out about this deep and dangerous problem.  The other day, the WSJ entered the conversation with a piece titled “Federal Offenses: As Criminal Laws Proliferate, More Are Ensnared.”  We’re not going to comment on the piece other than to say it’s well written, and worth reading.

It is certainly true that the number of federal crimes has risen rapidly in recent decades.  And it is beyond rational dispute that a growing number of these crimes are flatly unjust.

Far too many are created by regulatory bureaucrats, unbeholden to any voters, as tools for enforcement of their strictly civil rules (the proper methods of enforcement being fines and restrictions/denials of permit).  And by “far too many” we mean “all crimes created by regulatory agencies.”  Criminal law is not just some tool for rule enforcement; it is the singular means by which the awesome might of the state is brought to bear to punish those whose conduct is so bad that society demands that we take away the transgressor’s liberty, his property, his reputation, and sometimes even his life.  As an old bureau chief of ours used to say, “it is a big fucking hammer, not to be used lightly.”

Many of the federal crimes are unjust for that reason, because they do not punish conduct that society (through elected officials) requires punishment.  Far too many are also unjust because they lack any (more…)

Decent, law-abiding citizen? Go directly to jail.

Saturday, October 30th, 2010


Odds are, if you’re reading this, you’ve lived an admirable life.  You applied yourself in school, got a good job, and worked hard to be a valuable member of your community.  Through your own efforts, you’ve probably earned a position of respect and responsibility.  Maybe you run your own shop, or you’re a partner in a firm, or you’re a military officer.  Your ethics are beyond reproach.  You’re raising your kids to be loyal, kind and brave.  You, dear reader, are doing everything right.

And you, dear reader, can very easily find yourself in the defendant’s seat.  In the crosshairs of a federal or state prosecution.  Facing serious prison time.

For what?  For nothing, that’s what.  You yourself may have done nothing wrong, but our criminal law has devolved so far, so fast, that you can find yourself being prosecuted anyway.

The worst effects can be seen in federal law.  As the regulatory state has expanded, as the “nanny state” has expanded, as the role of the federal government has expanded, the nature of federal criminal law has changed dramatically.  Stuff that nobody in their right mind would consider “criminal” has nevertheless been made into a federal crime, not just by congressional statute, but by regulatory fiat.

Regulatory crimes are the worst, because agency regulations are never (more…)