You Could Be Committing a Crime and Not Even Know It

You Could Be Committing a Crime and Not Even Know It
AP Photo/Morry Gash

In 2012,  Lawrence Lewis, an engineer from Washington D.C., was arrested after unknowingly violating the Clean Water Act while doing his job. While most people know when they commit a crime, there are also countless instances where Americans unknowingly break the law while performing what they assume are normal everyday tasks. Worse still, there have been few attempts to stop this type of over-criminalization through reform.

At the time of his unwitting violation of the Clean Water Act, Lewis was working at a military retirement home, where he had to handle its backed-up sewage system. When Lewis was first hired at the home, he had been taught to divert the backed-up sewage system to a nearby storm drain, which was thought to empty into the city’s sewer system. Lewis and his staff were misinformed. In fact, the diverted waste ended up in a creek that flowed into the Potomac River, violating the Clean Water Act.

Thus Lawrence Lewis, who had worked hard to escape life in the inner city, wound up facing jail time for performing an everyday task. As Lewis put it: “I couldn't believe that I was born and raised in the projects and I worked so hard to get out that situation and build a professional career and here I am at work getting arrested for something I had no idea was wrong.” It is a sad reality that Lewis and countless other Americans continue to suffer as a result of overcriminalization. The criminal-justice system should be used to protect the lives, liberty, and property of all Americans and punish truly dangerous offenders, who commit crimes that deserve punishment. The system should not be used to make good, upstanding citizens look and feel like criminals. 

Lewis’s story was publicized, but there are numerous untold stories of Americans who have dealt with unnecessary suffering due to overcriminalization. And the lack of reform in this area is jeopardizing the well-being of the whole country. Over the past 40 years, federal criminal law has increased in size and scope while diminishing in value. 

Traditionally, federal criminal law focused on inherently wrongful conduct: treason, murder, bank robbery, theft, counterfeiting, and the like. Today, the federal criminal code reaches an unbelievably wide range of conduct. The number of criminal offenses in the U.S. Code increased from 3,000 in the early 1980s to 4,000 by the year 2000. By 2008, the number had increased to more than 4,450. The pace is accelerating — and that’s just at the federal level. Such over-criminalization overflows prisons and burdens taxpayers.

Congress bears much of the blame, but federal agencies have also created hundreds of thousands of regulations that define crimes, or contain potential criminal penalties for violations. Many of these regulations are vague and become a trap for individuals who unintentionally commit acts that turn out to be criminal. 

Combining the estimated 4,500 federal crimes listed in the code with the 50 plus volumes that cover all the different rules and regulations of federal agencies, there are 300,000 to 400,000 rules that could be considered federal offenses.

The average citizen should know the laws of his or her country. But Americans cannot reasonably be expected to understand every potential crime when America’s lawmakers, themselves, lack a well-defined understanding of the sprawling federal criminal code. 

The code should be reviewed to eliminate dated or superfluous criminal offenses, so that unsuspecting citizens no longer fall victim to undeserving criminal offenses. 

Tomi Ladeji is a senior at Liberty University pursuing a B.S. in Strategic Communication. She is also a Koch fellow at the Network of Enlightened Women. 

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