July 24th, 2015 by Attorney Dan Carman
In the United States, federal laws apply to everyone in the country, while state laws apply only to those people who live, work, or happen to be in a particular state. Under the Constitution, federal law is supreme and must be followed if a conflict arises. Some of the first federal crimes in the U.S. were defined in the Crimes Act of 1790, which specified 23 federal crimes. Seven of the offenses carried a mandatory death penalty: treason, murder, three offenses relating to piracy, forgery of a public security of the United States and the rescue of a person convicted of a capital crime. Thirteen of the crimes were punishable by a term of imprisonment, with a statutory maximum of up to one year, three years or seven years. The remaining three crimes were punishable by fines and corporal punishment or were left to the court’s discretion.
Since then, our criminal code has exploded. There are currently more than 4,500 federal criminal laws, with approximately 300,000 regulations that can be enforced criminally. Congress continues to criminalize at an average rate of one new crime for every week of the year. Practically all inherently wrongful conduct has been criminalized several times over, yet from 2000 through 2007, Congress enacted 452 new criminal offenses.
While the original federal criminal code was limited to what was necessary to get the new government started, today’s code covers an unimaginably broad range of conduct and seems to be enacted by a Congress looking to score political points with uninformed citizens taught to be blindly afraid of invisible crime. Many new criminal offenses also lack criminal intent requirements, making it astoundingly easy to be punished for conduct that does not conform to what reason or experience would suggest may be illegal. These new offenses fail to satisfy the fundamental principle of criminal law that, before criminal punishment can be imposed, the government must prove both a guilty act and a guilty mind.
To counter the troubling explosive growth that federal criminal law has undergone in recent decades, the Heritage Foundation suggests:
- Showing the human side of overcriminalization by reporting the stories of those people who have been callously victimized by the criminal justice system
- Having courts give the benefit of the doubt to the person being prosecuted in cases involving a law that is vague or unclear
- Requiring Congress to provide written analysis of and justification for every new or modified criminal offense and every new or enhanced penalty
- Prohibiting Congress from delegating the power to establish crimes to unelected officials in federal departments and agencies
- Petitioning Congress to repeal unjust or unnecessary laws, starting with offenses that make it a crime to engage in conduct that no reasonable American would know is unlawful.
If you have been charged with a crime or have questions about how the law might apply to your situation, discuss it with one of the attorneys at the Lexington, KY-based Carman Law Firm. As criminal defense attorneys with years of experience, we offer thorough, experienced representation. Call today at (859) 685-1055 or fill out this online contact form to find out how we can help you.