Henrik Sorensen Cultura/Newscom

Anthony Brasfield, a 40-year-old Florida man, was arrested Sunday for releasing a dozen heart-shaped helium balloons into the air in what was to be a romantic gesture for his girlfriend, according to SunSentinel.com.

Brasfield was charged with polluting to harm humans, animals, and plants under the Florida Air and Water Pollution Control Act (FAWPCA). Brasfield released the balloons a mile and a half from an animal refuge, possibly endangering animals. Brasfield’s offense is a third-degree felony.

Is releasing balloons something that is worth sending a person to prison over?

If releasing balloons should be a crime, there are plenty of wedding parties and hundreds of thousands of Nebraska Cornhusker football fans who should be locked away for a long time.

Worse, the crime most likely occurs every day right inside the state of Florida. Up the coast from where Brasfield was arrested, there is a place that sells a large number of helium balloons: Disney World. Is a child who intentionally releases a Mickey Mouse balloon a felon? Regrettably, the answer may be yes.

Under FAWPCA, a willful violation of the act is punished with up to five years in prison. You may think, “But he didn’t willfully violate the law.” That may be true, but the Florida Supreme Court has said that doesn’t matter.

While the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted willful in federal statutes to mean an intentional violation of a known legal duty (Cheek v. United States, 498 U.S. 192 (1991)), the Florida Supreme Court has interpreted willful to mean “[p]roceeding from a conscious motion of the will” (Polite v. State, 973 So.2d 1107, 1112 (Fla. 2007)). This means that a person can be found guilty when he intends his actions (in this case, releasing the balloon) regardless of whether he knows about or intends to break the law.

Trying to deter nominally harmful conduct through the criminal code puts well-meaning citizens at risk of being labeled criminals. A ticket and/or fine would surely have discouraged Brasfield from releasing balloons again and would have helped put others on notice that they should demonstrate their affection in some other way. There is no cause to prosecute in this situation. A prosecution can result only in added cost to the state and interfering with Brasfield’s life by needlessly branding him a criminal.

How many criminal laws do you break every day without even realizing it? Sadly, like Brasfield, when you find out, it may be too late.