"What are you in for?"

Regulation can be a dirty word – I mean dirty as a stopped up toilet.

When most of us think of crimes and criminals, we envision robbery, burglary, car theft, murder, rape, and the like. Embezzlement, fraud, bogus investment schemes, and tax evasion also raise no eyebrows when referred to in a discussion of criminal law.

For most of the history of the United States, criminal law enforcement was, with few exceptions, a state matter. Indeed, the only crimes specifically mentioned in the Constitution are treason, counterfeiting, and piracy. Over the first century of its existence, Congress, as part of its power to enact laws necessary and proper to carry out its enumerated powers, defined other crimes, and so by the year 1900 around 165 federal criminal laws were on the books.

By 1970, the number reached 2,000. In 2004, there were over 4,000 federal laws providing for punishment by fine and imprisonment, and they are scattered throughout over 27,000 pages of the United States Code. Some of the prescribed offenses are so obscure, it’s not hard to believe that fewer than a score of persons know they exist.

The image of the criminal is that of a bad guy who kills and hurts people and steals their belongings. Although few would disagree that water pollution is undesirable, should someone go to prison for inadvertently spilling sewage into a creek? Apparently, one can.

Lawrence Lewis was raised in the projects of Washington, D.C. By the time he was 20, all three of his older brothers had been murdered and his father was dead of a heart attack.

“I got a criminal record from my job—when I thought I was doing the right thing?’

Seeking an escape, he took night classes while working as a janitor for the D.C. school system. He rose to become chief engineer at a military retirement home. He raised his two youngest daughters alone, determined to show them how to lead a crime-free life.

That goal was derailed by blocked toilets.
 
In 2007, Mr. Lewis and his staff diverted a backed-up sewage system into an outside storm drain—one they long believed was connected to the city’s sewage-treatment system—to prevent flooding in an area where the sickest residents lived. In fact, the storm drain emptied into a creek that ultimately reaches the Potomac River.
 
Eight months later, Mr. Lewis pleaded guilty in federal court to violating the Clean Water Act. He was had to pay a $2,500 fine, was given one year’s probation and placed under court-ordered supervision.

Lewis didn’t realize he was committing a crime, or even that he was doing something wrong. No matter. Lewis’ lawyer explained that a guilty plea was the only reasonable option unless he wanted to risk a prison term. Under the CWA, the government did not have to prove he knew he was violating the law, and the cost of a defense would be enormous even if a jury found him not guilty. From personal experience as defense counsel in federal court, I know that the deck is stacked against criminal defendants there. And this is the USA, not the USSR, or is it?

By the way, this isn’t a partisan issue. Both parties have made a lot of political mileage out of being “tough on crime.” The modus operandi for the past half-century has been: find a problem; pass a law.

The first thing a jail inmate asks another is “What are you in for?” In Mr. Lewis’s case it would be “Stopped up toilets.” Good grief, y’all!

For more of the article, please see this link.

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