Members of Congress Work to Rein In Overcriminalization in America

Joe Luppino-Esposito / Paul J. Larkin Jr. /

What do a legendary guitar maker and a lobster importer have in common? Both are alleged to have run afoul of the Lacey Act, one of the most egregious, overcriminalized statutes on the books. Now some Members of Congress are working to inject some much-needed fairness into the justice system.

Originally enacted in 1900 as a modest law designed simply to protect states against poachers who fled across state lines, the Lacey Act today makes it a federal crime to import fish, wildlife, or plants in violation of any foreign law adopted in any form by any foreign nation, irrespective of the reasonableness of a person’s conduct. No other nation puts its citizens at such risk of imprisonment.

The result, predictably, has been miscarriage of justice. Federal agents raided the Tennessee manufacturing plant of Gibson Guitar for an alleged violation of the Lacey Act due to the import of certain wood from India. Months after the raid, the U.S. government still holds more than $1 million in seized property but has yet to file charges against the company.

Abner Schoenwetter spent five-plus years in prison for “heinous” crimes like importing lobsters into the U.S. that, under a void Honduran law, were too small to be taken and should have been packed in boxes rather than in clear plastic bags.

Now, some members of Congress are looking to change that. On May 8, the House Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans, and Insular Affairs of the House Committee on Natural Resources is scheduled to hold a hearing on H.R. 4171, The Freedom from Over-Criminalization and Unjust Seizures Act of 2012 (FOCUS Act), a bill that would eliminate the foreign law provisions and make the Lacey Act enforceable only through civil process.

On May 9 at 3:30 p.m., Senator Rand Paul (R–KY) and Representative Paul C. Broun (R–GA) will be at Heritage to discuss their companion bills and the impact they would have on federal criminal law. You can join us live or watch online via our free webcast.

Even with the injustices clearly documented and extensive research into the merits of reforming the Lacey Act, the bills from Senator Paul and Representative Broun do not come without opposition. The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association has opposed the decriminalization of foreign environmental laws for reasons that Paul Larkin has argued are unconvincing.

It is high time that Congress begin to recognize the problems of overcriminalization, as former Attorney General Ed Meese has explained on several occasions. Rather than writing more outrageous criminal laws (such as those concerning the Titanic, for example), Congress should join the discussion and carefully consider what truly should be punishable as a crime.