How People Are Prosecuted For Breaking Laws They Don’t Know Exist

Legislature considering criminal intent reform bills

Lisa Snyder’s neighbors had children and early starts at work. She was happy to watch their kids until the school bus arrived in the morning — until she was threatened with penalties for running an unlicensed child care service.

Alan Taylor needed more parking at his growing business and thought he had received all the proper permits to expand the lot on his property. But the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality successfully prosecuted him for jeopardizing a wetland he didn’t know existed.

Kenneth Schumacher got rid of some scrap tires at what turned out to be an unlicensed disposal facility. Though he didn’t intend to break the law, he was sentenced to 270 days in jail and a fine of $10,000.

Michigan has over 3,000 felonies and misdemeanors on the books — far more than the average resident could possibly remember. Obvious crimes, like murder or theft, make up some of these statutes, but more of them cover actions such as “transporting Christmas trees without a manifest” or burning grass clippings or leaves in certain areas.

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These laws are especially dangerous to ordinary people because 26 percent of Michigan’s felonies and 59 percent of its misdemeanors don’t specify criminal intent. This means that people who never intended to break the law may be (and often are) prosecuted for crimes they had no idea they committed.

Charlie Owens, the head of the National Federation of Independent Businesses in Michigan, supports a bill that would ensure laws were clear on criminal intent.

“This is a serious concern for many small family-owned businesses that find themselves facing a criminal prosecution for minor paperwork violations or running afoul of a rule or regulation without any knowledge or intent to do wrong,” Owens said in a statement. “When you consider the absolute avalanche of rules and regulations heaped on a business owner by federal, state and local governments it should be no surprise that honest mistakes happen.”

To fix this problem, the Michigan Legislature is considering adding intent provisions to laws that currently lack one, with two bills before the Senate Judiciary Committee. House Bill 4713 passed the state House unanimously and would establish that if a law does not indicate a “culpable mental state” the prosecution must show that a person violated a law “purposely, knowingly or recklessly.” This bill exempts certain sections of Michigan code.

Senate Bill 20 is similar, but would only apply to future laws. Because there are so many laws and regulations already, proponents of criminal intent reform prefer a bill that is strong going forward but also applies to laws on the books. Neither of these bills eliminates crimes; they merely clarify the standard of intent needed in a prosecution.

These reforms would not allow a Michigander to get out of a larceny charge by claiming ignorance of the law, but they would make it less likely for him to do jail time for catching a fish he didn’t realize was protected, or being smacked with hefty fines for failing to properly display a camping license on his tent.

The bills currently sit in the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, who has said he hopes to take them up in early December. Also on the committee are Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton, Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton, Sen. Tory Rocca, R-Sterling Heights, and Sen. Steve Bieda, D-Warren.


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