Too Many Laws
“There is no one in the United States over the age of 18 who cannot be indicted for some federal crime,” retired Louisiana State University law professor John Baker told the Wall Street Journal in July 2011. “That is not an exaggeration.”
I have long maintained that there are too many laws and regulations in America. And while I applaud attempts by Trump to roll back the regulatory overload, more needs to be done.
There have been attempts at figuring out how many laws there are in this country, but none have been successful. Between the cities, counties, townships, states, and the federal government, getting an accurate number is virtually impossible.
In one try at it, in 1982 the Justice Department tried to determine the total number of criminal laws. In a project that lasted two years, the Department compiled a list of approximately 3,000 criminal offenses. And keep in mind this was 35 years ago. This effort was considered, at the time, the most exhaustive attempt to count the number of federal criminal laws. In a Wall Street Journal article about this project, “this effort came as part of a long and ultimately failed campaign to persuade Congress to revise the criminal code, which by the 1980s was scattered among 50 titles and 23,000 pages of federal law.”
Fast forward to 2015. The United States now has some 300,000 federal regulations, and this number gets bigger every year. In addition to the regulations, there are about 4,500 federal criminal statutes on the books carrying fines or prison terms for offenders. And this is only the Federal level, and doesn’t include any lower level laws.
But the problem isn’t just the number of laws, it’s their byzantine application in ways that were never intended by the drafters. For example, consider the case of Yates v. he United States, 135 S. Ct. 1074 (2015).
John Yates was a commercial fisherman in the Gulf of Mexico. A state conservation officer, who was also a deputized federal agent, boarded his vessel to inspect their catch of red grouper. After inspecting some 3,000 fish, the official identified 72 red grouper that did not meet the minimum 20-inch conservation standard and issued a citation from the state. He ordered Yates to bring the undersized catch when he returned to port. When Yates returned to port the next day, armed federal agents stood by while inspectors reexamined his catch, finding only 69 fish under the minimum standard. Federal officials accused Yates of destroying evidence. Three years later, the federal government charged him with the destruction of evidence to impede a federal investigation.
In August 2011, Yates was convicted and sentenced under a provision in the 2002 Sarbanes–Oxley law, passed in the wake of the Enron scandal. The law’s “anti-shredding” provision, meant to apply to the destruction of documents or files related to a federal financial-fraud investigation, has nothing to do with fish.
The Supreme Court threw out the conviction, relying more on common sense than any technical legal rationale.
But the crux of the problem is this. There are too many laws, and those laws are applied in too many unintended ways. No man is innocent in today’s America. The state, which already spies on us, has also made it impossible to obey the law. The Supreme Court has gone so far as to say that a policeman may stop you, search you, and use the results of that search against you, even if you had broken no law giving the cop reason to stop you, provided that the officer believed you had broken a law. In Heien v. North Carolina, the Supreme Court ruled that a violation of the 4th amendment is perfectly acceptable if the violation results from a “reasonable mistake about the law” on the part of police. Tacitly, the Supreme Court has admitted that even those hired to enforce the law can’t know the law.