There Oughta be a Law: Part 1

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How many laws did you break today? Did you say none? Man you are sooo wrong!

Did you eat ice cream on Sunday? Did you use any of George Carlin’s seven dirty words? Did you wear a wife-beater in the park? Is your thong showing? Are your pants really tight? Did your significant other orally get your rocks off? Did you go out in public while suffering from a cold? Did you wear high heels? Did you import lobsters in a cardboard box instead of a plastic bag? Did you snore while sleeping in a room with unlocked windows? Are you a Quaker? Did your wife ride you cowboy style? Do you live with, but are not married to, your significant other? Did you taunt Bigfoot?

All of these activities are illegal somewhere in the US. Several of them, for example oral sex, are illegal in many places. And Abner Schoenwetter spent 6-1/2 years in a federal prison for the crime of importing lobsters in the incorrect container in violation of Honduran law!

By the most recent estimate, Congress has passed 5,000 laws for which you can be convicted of a crime. On top of that, federal agencies make regulations that carry criminal penalties ranging from fines to imprisonment. Nobody knows how many of these regulations exist, estimates range from 10,000 to as many as 300,000. Each state, county, city, town, and village then throw in their own laws resulting in literally millions of laws across the US. You’re not even safe from foreign laws. The Lacey Act makes it a crime to break certain laws of foreign countries. That’s how Schoenwetter ended up in jail.

It’s impossible to know what the laws are, even the law enforcers don’t know. But according to the courts that is not an excuse, you should have known the law, no matter how obscure, ridiculous, or illogical the law is. To make matters worse, many laws, especially regulatory laws made by government agencies, incorporate the concept of “strict liability”. Strict liability means that the mere act of breaking a law requires that you be punished. It doesn’t matter that no one, including the government bureaucrat you consulted, knew the law existed. It doesn’t matter that you never intended to break the law. It doesn’t matter that an accident or the actions of someone else caused you to break the law. You broke the law and now you must be punished – end of story. Don’t buy an American Indian craft from a roadside stand on the reservation. It might contain the feather of a migratory bird that the seller found lying on the ground. If the feds find out, you could find yourself sitting in a jail cell for 2 months and $15,000 poorer because the feather in your vacation souvenir is illegal.

There’s no justice to be found in this situation. The vast majority of laws are treated as government secrets but the police state places the onus on you to know each and every one. Franz Kafka would be proud.

So what can we do?

I am proposing the “What is the Law?” act, legislation to force federal, state, and local governments to publish ALL laws in understandable English in one location on the Internet so that everyone can access them. The laws provisions would be as follows:

  1. All laws – federal, state, local, and international – must be posted on a single national website anyone can access. The website must be searchable so that you can enter a keyword, for example “lobster” or “feather”, and find out what laws address these items.
  2. Any laws improperly added to the system, thus rendering them unsearchable using all terms applicable to that law, cannot be used to prosecute an individual for breaking the law under the applicable circumstance. For example, if you can’t search the migratory bird laws using the keyword “feather” then you cannot be prosecuted for possessing the feather of a migratory bird.
  3. All laws must be written in clear and concise English, not legal jargon. All terms must be clearly defined.
  4. All penalties must be spelled out clearly. Laws that do not specify a penalty are then declared penalty-less, meaning you cannot be punished for breaking that law.
  5. Any laws not posted on the national website by the end of 2016 will be declared non-existent and no one may be prosecuted for breaking a non-existent law.
  6. Anyone in prison at the end of 2016 for breaking a non-existent law must be immediately released and have any record of breaking that law removed.
  7. Strict liability will no longer be incorporated into any federal, state, or local laws. Any mention of the concept in existing laws must be ignored by the courts.

This should go a long way towards rectifying the current imbalance of power between the government and the rest of us. It will force the police state to tell us what the rules are and enable us to fight back when we are unjustly arrested and/or convicted. It should also eliminate a lot of stupid and trivial laws because the slow moving government leviathan will never work quickly enough to get all the laws published, therefore the important ones will go up first while the “don’t eat ice cream on Sunday” laws will never make it.

Of course knowing what the laws are is only part of the problem. Cruel, dishonest, unethical, bigoted, and sometimes downright evil treatment by the police and courts is an even bigger part. The next two parts of this series will give some proposals for curing these ills.

So forward a copy of this article to your Congressperson and Senators and tell them they need to introduce this bill. If they won’t do it then ask them – why do you want to keep the laws a secret? Remember, these clowns work for you. They should be reminded of that as much as possible.

Wayne Middlesteadt is the author of Five Ways to Beat the Market and The Golden Age of Distance Running.

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Wayne Middlesteadt is a 1986 graduate of Georgia Tech and has an MBA from Georgia State University. Currently working as a financial writer and track and field historian, his latest book is Five Ways To Beat The Market.