According to research conducted by Thomas Shull in 2016 on behalf of the Mackinac Center, there are more than 750 sets of administrative rules in Michigan, containing more than 17,000 individual rules and overseen by more than 150 state agencies.[*] Not all of these rules are covered by a legislative catch-all that makes their violation a crime, but many are. Determining exactly how many rules carry criminal penalties would be an enormous task as the way that rules and statutes interact can be extremely complicated and idiosyncratic.
For example, some laws have different penalties for violating the statute than for violating the rules promulgated under it. Breaking the statute may be a misdemeanor, for instance, but breaking a rule might only be a civil infraction. Other laws make a distinction based on the intent of the person who violates a rule. Those who have intentionally broken a rule have committed a crime, but if anyone who commits the same act by accident or while unaware of the rule is subject to a civil infraction or fine. Still other laws ratchet up the penalty based on how many times someone has violated a rule. A first offense might result in a fine; a second offense could lead to a license suspension; a third offense could be a misdemeanor, for example.
It can be hard to understand how a law and its rules interact just by reading the law or the relevant rules. For example, state law requires a building permit to construct a campground and a separate license to operate one, which must be renewed every three years.[†] The statute authorizes a state department to promulgate rules “regarding the sanitation and safety standards for campgrounds and public health.”[17 These rules cover issues like where campgrounds may be located, how vehicles can get access to the campground, what must be done to supply water and dispose of sewage, and much more. Finally, the law says that anyone violating the statute or rules is guilty of a misdemeanor.
That seems fairly straightforward, but one section of the statute requires the department to notify anyone it believes is violating the law or rules. The department must specify the violation and determine how long the person has to comply. But this raises a question: When is a misdemeanor committed? Is it when the department finds out that someone is out of compliance and then issues a notice? Or does it happen only if that person fails to comply with the notice and the department revokes the person’s license? Or does the misdemeanor only apply to someone who builds or operates a campground without the proper permit and license? In short, it’s hard to tell whether and when someone who violates the campground law or its rules is criminally liable; it is not evident from a plain reading of either. There are most certainly other state statutes and rules that are equally confusing.
Legislative statues and administrative rules interact in complicated, varied, and, at times, confusing ways. For the typical citizen obliged to comply with these laws and rules, understanding their dynamics may seem to be an impossible challenge.
[*] Shull based this research on publicly available databases of Michigan rules and interviews with state officials.
[†] MCL §§ 333.12505-06a. The building permit costs $600 and the operating licenses cost between $75 and $500, depending on the size of the campground.