There are many ways that overcriminalization in America can lead to the wrongful conviction and incarceration of innocent people.
Although the American legal system’s purpose is to serve and protect, there are some instances where the country’s law enforcement agencies may go overboard. At any given moment in Pennsylvania and in the country at large, a person may be charged with one or more of the over 4,450 crimes currently defined in the Federal Criminal Code, not counting the additional federal regulatory crimes, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Some believe that with so many federal crimes listed in the U.S. legal system, including various degrees of fraud, forgery and embezzlement, virtually everyone is guilty of committing an infraction of some type. Not only do these crimes result in a hefty workload for the nation’s courts, but a significant number of innocent people are made to spend time behind bars as victims of overcriminalization.
Factors leading to overcriminalization
Whether a person who is accused of committing a white collar crime slips through the cracks of an ambiguously written statute, or forced to plead guilty due to lack of funds and the inherent risk of going to trial, overcriminalization can occur in many different ways. The NACDL lists the following as common factors that lead to overcriminalization:
•· Passing and enforcing laws with mandatory minimum sentences. This discriminatory way of determining a penalty removes any discretion a judge may have to adjust a sentence depending on the severity of a person’s crime, past criminal history and chance of rehabilitation. The justice system should be able to customize a sentence to fit the person as well as the crime committed.
- Writing laws in such a way that it is hard to discern the exact definition of a crime or penalty associated with a crime, leaving judges to project their own interpretation of the law.
- Permitting certain crimes that had previously been tried at a state-level to be tried in federal court.
- Eliminating the ability to factor in whether the person accused of a crime knew that they were actually committing a crime or whose activities were carried out with unlawful intent.
- Determining liability for a crime without the presence of sufficient physical evidence or knowledge that a person meant to cause harm.
Under current legislation, innocent mistakes can result in jail time and transform a person’s life forever.
Wrongful conviction and incarceration
A case of overcriminalization changed the life of a small business owner who was thrown into federal prison due to a business transaction. According to the NACDL, the man was found guilty by a federal jury of violating the Lacey Act, which charges anyone who violates the fish and wildlife laws of any nation with a federal crime. The conviction stemmed from an incident in 1999, when the man’s lobsters were confiscated by the National Marine Fisheries Service. The NMFS told him that he was transporting the load in violation of Honduran law. Although the Honduran government wrote in defense of the man saying that the basis of the convictions were not accurate according to Honduran law, a jury found the man guilty and a federal appeals court denied his appeal. The man was finally released from prison after eight years.
When to contact an attorney
Not only can a federal crime conviction ruin your reputation, but it can deplete your finances and your passion for life. Established criminal defense attorneys can lend vital legal counsel to hardworking people who are being persecuted by the American legal system.