NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Thanks to an overreaching and arcane penal code, experts say almost any ordinary American could be convicted of a federal crime.
As Gibson Guitar Corp. CEO Henry Juszkiewicz discovered, the phenomenon has not only destroyed people's lives, it's also bad for business.
Juszkiewicz, inspired by the Beatles, first picked up the guitar when he was 8 years old.
His journey to the top of the music industry captures the idea of the American dream: He bought and saved a legendary company from going out of business. That company was Gibson Guitar Corp.
CBN News asked Juszkiewicz what sets Gibson guitars apart from others companies.
"I think we have the best people, and we have the best guitars," he replied.
Since taking the helm, Juszkiewicz has become the face of Gibson. It's a position that has put him in the company of some of the most famous names in entertainment and politics - from Tony Bennett, Sting, Earl Scruggs, and Willie Nelson to President Obama, Prince Charles, and Queen Elizabeth.
Gibson Strums the Blues
During an exclusive interview at Gibson's corporate headquarters in Nashville, Tenn., Juszkiewicz played an electric guitar for our CBN News crew.
The song he chose to play mirrors the mood his company finds itself in today - the blues.
That's because the company is mired in the middle of not one but two federal investigations. The most recent took place last year.
When he arrived at his office August 24, 2011, Juszkiewicz was greeted by armed federal agents from the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Homeland Security.
Without any explanation, they raided two Gibson factories and its corporate offices and confiscated computer hard drives, records, and about $1 million worth of equipment and raw materials used to produce their guitars.
"They said they couldn't tell me because [the warrant] was sealed," he said, recounting the events of the raid. "I said, 'You're here with guns, and you can't tell me why?' And they said, 'That's right.'"
Five months later, Gibson still knows little about the investigation.
Juszkiewicz has been vocal about the government's conduct during its investigations, calling the government a big bully that's abusing its power and violating his legal rights in due process.
"We've had no charges filed, and we've had disastrous impact on our business," he said.
According to a government affidavit, the investigation centers on the material used to make Gibson guitar fingerboards, in particular Indian rosewood. While the raw material is perfectly legal to import, what's at dispute is the thickness of the wood and tariff codes used to import the goods.
The issue hinges on a 100-year-old wildlife anti-trafficking law called the Lacey Act. In 2008, Congress amended the law to include a broad range of plant products, making it illegal "to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire, or purchase any plant taken in violation of the law of a U.S. state or any foreign law that protects plants."
Gibson argues that it did its best to comply with the laws in each case that sparked the investigation.
Juszkiewicz told CBN News he had lawyers both in the U.S. and India review the law and used wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, an independent non-government organization.
"Both India and Madagascar, whose laws the government is citing in this prosecution, say that we've done everything legally," he said.
Juszkiewicz blames unelected environmental attorneys at the Department of Justice for launching the investigation. They appear to be working toward a conviction for using the wrong tariff codes for the wrong size of wood. A conviction could result in huge fines and the possibility of imprisonment.
The Justice Department isn't saying much. In a statement from the U.S. Attorney's Office-Middle Tennessee to CBN News, the only comment offered was, they had "nothing new to say" and that "the case is ongoing."
Targeting the Little Guys
But if you think the government is going after Gibson because it's a multimillion-dollar corporation, you're wrong. They go after the little guys, too.
Krister Evertson, who is featured in the book One Nation Under Arrest, became fascinated by science when he was 9 years old. He earned awards and won prizes for his work at school and science fairs, and he eventually started his own company to make hydrogen fuel cells more efficient.
But in May 2004, his American dream turned into a nightmare when two SUVs filled with SWAT agents ran him off the road and arrested him, he said.
"Nothing mattered," Evertson explained. "The only thing that mattered was -- what are they going to do with me? Are they going to throw me in jail? Are they going to let me go? Are they going to shoot me?"
He was arrested for attaching the wrong shipping label to a package of raw sodium he sold on eBay - a violation of the Hazardous Material Transportation Act. That charge was a technicality, which Evertson fought and won.
While a jury acquitted him, the government wouldn't give up.
It brought in the Environmental Protection Agency, which decided to charge him for breaking an environmental law, claiming sealed supplies worth more than $100,000 that he paid to keep at a storage facility were abandoned "hazardous waste."
Evertson spent a total of a year and a half in prison. His experience fighting the feds left him leery of government.
"I told them, 'Look, I'm doing a good thing here,'" he said. "They didn't care. As a matter of fact, they took words that I used and turned it around on me. And if anything doesn't fit [their] agenda, even the truth, they don't care."
These examples aren't isolated.
The number of people put in prisons has exploded in just the last two decades. More than 80,000 federal sentences were handed down in 2011.
That's about twice as many sentences as there were in the mid-1990s, according to statistics used by Wall Street Journal. Some of the offenders were caught in a web of federal law they didn't even know were crimes.
It's part of what's called "overcriminalization," a phenomenon where even minor offenses can now be punished with criminal penalties, and the number of potential violations is constantly growing. Approximately 59,000 new federal rules have been enacted since 1996.
Critics point to Congress for imposing far too many penalties in laws and regulations that cover virtually every part of life. But many in Congress don't realize the impact of these laws when it's time to cast their votes.
"If I apply this law to the process in Congress, I say they're guilty," Juszkiewicz said. "It doesn't matter that they didn't know. Put them in jail."
Experts say overcriminalization and overzealous enforcement of laws like the Lacey Act not only breeds the public's contempt for the justice system, they say it's bad for business.
"It has an effect on anyone who owns the company," Paul Larkin with the Heritage Foundation explained. "It has an effect on the employees who work at company. If it's a publicly-held company, it has an effect on the shareholders."
Timothy O'Toole, a Washington-based attorney specializing in federal criminal laws, described scenarios in which some of his clients shied away from international business ventures because of the vast network of laws and regulations.
"Some of them have just decided it's not worth it," O'Toole said. "That is, it looked like the foreign market would be very profitable for them but because of all of the additional requirements [that] would then apply to the American companies they just decide not to do it."
Those requirements and regulations hurt American businesses, profits, and job growth.
The Small Business Administration estimates that regulations cost the economy about $1.75 trillion a year.
The case against Gibson, however, has wider implications - affecting other music and furniture makers and any company that relies on rare wood.
Time to Take a Stand
Tennessee lawmaker Marsha Blackburn has co-sponsored legislation that would fix the problems companies like Gibson are facing.
"Here is a company who creates a product here, and they are facing the uncertainty and the overreach and the heavy hand of the federal government," Rep. Blackburn, R-Tenn., said.
"And it is completely standing in the way of their ability to do their job," he added.
Juszkiewicz is a longtime conservationist, and he still supports the overall goal of the Lacey Act. But he warned that if the law stands uncorrected, it could create even more victims of federal prosecution when it comes to declaring wood-based products Americans carry while traveling.
"So if you had a guitar and lipstick, that's two separate forms," he explains. "They can fine you $100,000 each, confiscate each, and then up to a year in prison for filling out the form incorrectly."
He said that's why he is taking a stand and speaking out. He wants to make sure America remains the land of the free - the sweet land of liberty - and not a nation of criminals.
"Democracy means that each and every one of us is responsible for this country and what happens," he said. "If we don't have citizens stand up and become part of the process to make it better, than we deserve what we get."
*Original broadcast April 24, 2012.