Web of Laws Creating Hosts of 'Accidental Criminals'

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WASHINGTON -- With so many real-life and dramatic depictions of criminals on TV, even a casual observer knows a key element for a guilty conviction is the intent to commit a crime.

In the world of law, that concept is defined as "mens rea," or a guilty state of mind.

But that isn't the case with federal laws where you can be found guilty of breaking them even if you didn't intend to do anything wrong.

"The average citizen can't know all the laws out there," The Heritage Foundation's Paul Larkin told CBN News.

Bobby Unser

It happened to racing legend Bobby Unser. In 1996, Unser went snowmobiling in the Rio Grande National Forest on the border of New Mexico and Colorado.

He and a friend got caught in a blizzard and were stranded for two days and two nights. They barely escaped with their lives.

But that was only the beginning of his ordeal.

"Bottom line: Don't trust any government agency," he warned. "Stand as clear from them as you can. Stay away from them because they're not there for your good."

Unser found himself in the middle of a fight with the U.S. Forest Service, facing a possible $5,000 fine and six months in jail for violating The Wilderness Act. The agency accused him of illegally snowmobiling on federally protected land known as "wilderness area."

But the racing champ claimed that even if he was in the wilderness area, it was only when he was lost in the snowstorm. On principle, Unser decided to fight the charge in court.

"Well, I estimate that we probably spent around $300,000, maybe $350,000 would be my guess," Unser said.

As for the government, they spent millions of dollars in their efforts for prosecute Unser.

"At the time we went to court, they'd already spent up somewhere around a million dollars. What - it's the taxpayers money. They didn't really care how much it cost," he said.

In the end, he lost and paid a $75 fine. Now the three-time Indy 500 winner has another title to add to his record: He's been convicted of a federal misdemeanor.

"Someone who doesn't know where the line is and winds up inadvertently crossing it is not the type of person the criminal law was designed to deal with," Larkin said.

Who's to Blame?

Like many others, Unser blames Congress for the growing number of federal laws.

But it's not just lawmakers who are at fault. Federal agencies not only enforce the laws, they write their own regulations, many which also carry criminal penalties.

With government involved in everything from the environment to employment to health, anyone can easily get caught in the web of federal laws.

The numbers prove it. Between 2000 and 2010, close to 800,000 people were sentenced for federal crimes.

Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, a former judge, is among the few lawmakers on Capitol Hill sounding the alarm about the disturbing phenomenon.

Gohmert said Congress should re-think stiff penalties on simple accounting errors when filing taxes.

"For heaven's sake, if people have not committed anything but a clerical error, fine if we must," the Texas lawmaker said. "But we've got to get people to stop thinking they're so tough when they slap a criminal penalty on what shouldn't be any more than an academic or a clerical error."

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., has worked with Gohmert and others to reform the code.

"In the past 20 or 30 years the number of people in jails and prisons in American has gone up almost tenfold because every time you turn around there are new laws," Scott noted.

Time for Oversight

The former attorney said one solution is for the House Judiciary Committee to oversee any new regulation that carries a criminal penalty.

He also believes Congress should quit slapping on additional penalties to acts already considered a crime at the state or local level.

"If you're a victim of carjacking, you're not going to call the FBI. You're going to call the local police. Why is this a federal crime?" Scott said.

So, why haven't Scott and Gohmert's cause found a following? They place part of the blame on members of Congress who want to appear "tough on crime."

They're quick to add there's not enough public awareness or outrage.

"Day after day, we're adding more crimes on the federal level. It doesn't make sense. It wastes the taxpayers' money, and it doesn't reduce crime. There's no deterrent effect if you didn't know," Scot said.

Gohmert likened the situation to author George Orwell's classic book 1984.

"What this all does for the government is it makes it an Orwellian type government, where people don't really know if they violated the law, but they stay in fear of their government," he said.

*Originally published April 9, 2012.

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CBN News
John Jessup

John Jessup

CBN News Anchor

John Jessup serves as the main news anchor for CBN, a position he assumed after 10 years reporting for the network in Washington, D.C. His work in broadcast news has earned him several awards in reporting, producing, and coordinating elections coverage. Follow John on Twitter @JohnCBNNews and "like" him at Facebook.com/John.V.Jessup.