Monday, June 2, 2014

The feds are not as needed as they think

Today, the United States Supreme Court decided United States v. Boone.  Ms. Boone was a wronged wife; her husband fathered a child with another women.  Some women would have filed for divorce; others would have stayed and tried to make the best of it.  Ms. Boone, a biologist, decided to expose her husband's paramour to toxic chemicals.

She stole some chemicals from the Philadelphia laboratory where she worked and left them where she thought Mistress Babymama would touch them and injure herself:  On Babymama's doorknob, inside her mailbox, and in her car.  Only she wasn't very good at it; the chemical she chose is bright orange, and Babymama figured out something was wrong before injuring herself.  The worst she suffered was a minor rash on one of her thumbs.

All right, jilted spouses have been doing nasty things to the other woman (and the other man) for centuries, and so far the only thing that even makes this an interesting story is that the wife had the technical knowledge to try chemicals, even though her implementation skills apparently left something to be desired.  Charge her with stalking, or battery; get a restraining order; give her probation; and be done with it, right?

Wrong. The feds literally decided to turn it into a federal case and charged her with the terroristic use of chemical weapons.

Today, the United States Supreme Court held that this was an abuse of the statute, and vacated her conviction (but not until she had already spent six years in prison).  Six justices interpreted the statute in such a way so as not to cover her conduct.  Three justices thought the statute, as written, did cover her conduct but would have found the statute unconstitutional.  No justice thought she belonged in a federal prison, even while acknowledging that what she did was not acceptable behavior.

And this brings us to the point of today's piece:  Congress has done entirely too much federalizing of criminal behavior the states are perfectly capable of handling themselves.  Does Pennsylvania not have laws against this sort of thing?  Of course it does; the Supreme Court cited three different Pennsylvania criminal statutes that might apply.  But federal law, like Topsy, just grows.  And grows.  And grows some more.  Today, the federal criminal code has exploded with things that used to be considered state and local matters, if they were crimes at all.

What does this mean in practice?  By one study, the average mostly-law-abiding American commits three federal crimes a week.  There are literally so many federal criminal statutes and regulations that it is impossible to keep up with, never mind comply with, all of them.  The old adage about ignorance of the law is no excuse may have made sense when there weren't many laws and the average citizen could be expected to know what was and was not illegal, but when a tax lawyer has to read an arcane section of the tax code multiple times -- and then research if there are any cases about it -- before being able to answer a client's simple question about whether his conduct is illegal, something is wrong.

In 1954, a Coloradan named John Gilbert Graham decided to murder his mother for insurance money.  She was flying from Denver to Seattle, so he put a bomb in her luggage that exploded mid-flight, causing the plane to crash, killing all 44 people aboard.

If that happened today, the feds would land before the airplane had crashed and would spend a million federal tax dollars -- and months if not years if not decades -- investigating and prosecuting.  In 1954, the State of Colorado had Graham tried, convicted and executed in a little more than a year, with no help from the feds whatsoever.  Local authorities know how to handle mass murder, even if the murder weapon happens to be an airplane.

So let me offer a modest proposal:  Alternating sessions of Congress should be repeal sessions, in which no new laws are passed; only repealed.  It would probably take about ten years to get the federal code down to a manageable size, even at that.  But it would be a start.

Feds, I hate to break it to you, but you're not nearly as needed as you think you are.

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