No Man Can Guess What The Law Will Be Tomorrow
July 23, 2013 Leave a comment
A very timely James Madison quote, via Thomas Sowell (from Federalist #62):
It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is today, can guess what it will be to-morrow.
Press release from the House Judiciary Committee’s Over-Criminalization Task Force:
Today, there are roughly 4,500 federal crimes on the books. And still many more regulations and rules that, if not abided by, result in criminal penalties, including incarceration. Many of these laws impose criminal penalties–often felony penalties–for violations of federal regulations.
Americans are expected to know it is wrong to commit murder or burglary or engage in an act of terrorism, regardless of what the law says. But today Americans must contend with literally thousands of obscure and cumbersome federal regulations, a simple misreading or ignorance of a regulation can land a person in prison.
An even more fundamental issue raised by such regulations is whether the prohibited conduct should be criminalized in the first place. Unfortunately, many regulatory crimes improperly define the elements of criminality, including omitting or improperly defining the appropriate level of criminal intent.
Do you know all the laws of the United States? Do you know all the laws of each of the 50 states (not to mention the assorted territories, Indian reservations, and other enclaves)? Probably not. And yet “ignorance of the law is no excuse” has been a maxim of criminal law since time immemorial. The result is an ever-expanding discretion for prosecutors–who now can pick a target for an investigation and then scour the statutes for a suitable crime with which to charge him. As Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s head of the dreaded secret police said proudly, “Show me the man and I’ll find you the crime.”
K. was living in a free country, after all, everywhere was at peace, all laws were decent and were upheld, who was it who dared accost him in his own home? He was always inclined to take life as lightly as he could, to cross bridges when he came to them, pay no heed for the future, even when everything seemed under threat. But here that did not seem the right thing to do. He could have taken it all as a joke, a big joke set up by his colleagues at the bank for some unknown reason, or also perhaps because today was his thirtieth birthday, it was all possible of course, maybe all he had to do was laugh in the policemen’s face in some way and they would laugh with him, maybe they were tradesmen from the corner of the street, they looked like they might be–but he was nonetheless determined, ever since he first caught sight of the one called Franz, not to lose any slight advantage he might have had over these people. There was a very slight risk that people would later say he couldn’t understand a joke, but–although he wasn’t normally in the habit of learning from experience–he might also have had a few unimportant occasions in mind when, unlike his more cautious friends, he had acted with no thought at all for what might follow and had been made to suffer for it. He didn’t want that to happen again, not this time at least; if they were play-acting he would act along with them.