Experts: Federal Criminal Code Overgrown, Ensnares Everyone


department-of-justiceThe federal criminal code has grown so large it ensnares everyday citizens who have no idea they are violating the law, a bipartisan group of legal experts told a House panel Tuesday.

There are about 4,500 criminal statutes, said Edwin Meese, attorney general under President Ronald Reagan and now with the conservative Heritage Foundation. “This is in addition to over 300,000 other regulations that don’t appear in the federal code but nevertheless carry essentially criminal penalties including prison,” he said. “So the vast array of traps for the unwary that lurks out there in federal criminal law is more extensive than most people realize.” The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts figures some 80,000 defendants are sentenced in federal court each year.

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R., Wis.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s panel on crime, terrorism and homeland security,and several panelists cited an article in Monday’s Wall Street Journal, part of a yearlong series about the expansion of the federal criminal code and the erosion of “criminal intent” requirements. The article chronicled the conviction of one Maryland man for actions prosecutors said weren’t intentional. It explained how Lawrence Lewis ended up with a federal criminal record while trying to deal with clogged toilets at a military retirement home in Washington, D.C.

“He was subject to the same law that [would apply to] somebody who knowingly, willingly dumped toxic materials into a navigable water,” said Mr. Sensenbrenner, who has introduced a bill to shrink the federal criminal code by a third and to define the level of criminal intent necessary to break the law.

Mr. Meese said the article was “a graphic example” of what is happening in the federal system. He suggested that fines or other administrative sanctions would suffice.

The subject has brought together lawmakers on both sides of the aisle critical of the expansion of laws and regulations at the federal level.

“We ought to get rid of the old myth that you’re presumed to know the law,” said Rep. John Conyers (D., Mich.), a member of the subcommittee.

Mr. Lewis’s lawyer, Barry Boss, a Washington attorney with Cozen O’Connor, said the firm plans to seek a presidential pardon.

{The Wall Street Journal/ Newscenter}


  1. This is a result of having a society with too many Lawyers. Lawyers whose sole purpose is to make laws and prosecute those who violate them.

  2. To anonymous #1- Lawyers don’t make laws. Legislators (ie senators and representatives) make laws. Lawyers are experienced in the laws made by legislators and therefore give counsel to people like this Mr. Lewis who unknowingly violate these hidden laws. The problem is that every accident or occurrence prompts government to think it needs to “protect” citizens from each and every such (potential) problem. Extremely reactionary. Besides this, this is what happens when you have people (legislators) who are paid big $…they constantly think “what law can I introduce next?”…after all, they don’t want rivals in the next election saying they haven’t passed any laws during their term.

  3. who is Lawrence Lewis and what happened to him? If I clean my toilet with toxins bought in the cleanser aisle of a supermarket am I a criminal because I am polluting the sewer system?