Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Former "Law and Order AG": Too Many Crimes

When Ed Meese was Attorney General, he was caricatured by the press and the Reagan administration's political opponents as being insensitive to the rights of the accused.

Of course, Meese didn't help matters any when he famously stated that "if a person is innocent of a crime, then he is not a suspect."

Still, Meese was actually a highly capable public servant, and I recall the amazement of my fellow law students, who had been prepared to protest him, when Meese spoke to a packed auditorium and convinced the vast bulk of them of the need to be more sensitive to the constitutional protection of property rights in the early 1990s.

So, it may surprise many to learn that Meese's current concern with the criminal justice system today is that the criminal law it too hard on people:

America is in the throes of "overcriminalization."
We are making and enforcing far too many criminal laws that create traps for the innocent but unwary — and threaten to turn otherwise respectable, law-abiding citizens into criminals.

Meese cites as examples a 12 year old girl being prosecuted for eating a french fry in the DC public transit system, an elderly cancer patient being arrested for failure to trim her hedges, and a high school science student being taken into custody by the FBI for failure to affix a required sticker to a package containing his science project.

The problem illustrated by these cases is that we're criminalizing non-traditional activities.  The criminal law was once used to deter people from doing things we all knew were subject to the criminal law - such inherently bad things as murder, robbery and rape.  We could reasonably say that every citizen should know this, and had no excuse if they committed such an act because "ignorance of the law was no defense."

The same cannot be said today.  According to the American Bar Association we have criminalized over 3,000 offenses (just under federal law) and there's "no conveniently accessible, complete list" of them.

A website dedicated to these issues can be found here:


If I find some cogent criticisms of this proposition and movement, I'll be sure to note them.

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