Last week, a congressional hearing probed a subject that New Jersey criminal defense lawyers are concerned about - the over criminalization of our country. The hearing was sponsored by the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security, and participants included Jim Levine, the president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, representatives of the Heritage Foundation, and the former head of the Enron Task Force, among others. The most poignant testimony came from persons who have had their lives shattered by a criminal justice system that often seems to ruin innocent lives.
One such victim of the system, who testified at the hearing, was Abner Schoenwetter, a Florida-based seafood broker. Ten years ago, Schoenwetter was indicted by a grand jury on charges relating to lobsters that he had agreed to purchase. According to US authorities, the shipment violated at least three Honduran administrative regulations under the Lacey Act, including those related to the size of the lobsters and the packaging. The Honduran authorities advised American law-enforcement that there was no need to punish Schoenwetter, because the Honduran regulations had been declared null and void in that country. None of that seemed to matter. Schoenwetter was sentenced to more than eight years in federal prison. He served out much of the sentence, and now remains under supervised release.
In the year 1900, there were approximately 165 federal criminal laws in the United States. Seven decades later, that number had expanded to 2,000. In 2010, there were more than 4,450 federal crimes in the United States Code, and as many as 300,000 federal regulations that can be punitively enforced. This year, Congress passed financial reform legislation, adding more than two dozen new crimes to that already lengthy roster.