Everyday Citizens Run Risk of Being Criminals

With the proliferation of laws and regulations passed by federal, state and local governments every year, it is nearly impossible for the average citizen to know if they are in compliance with the law. This regrettable situation is made worse by the recent trend of criminalizing non-compliance with statutes.

A recent study by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Heritage Foundation examined all the non-violent, non-drug-related offenses introduced by Congress in 2005 and 2006. The researchers found that of the laws enacted, 64 percent contained inadequate requirements to show intent to violate the law — a requirement that has underpinned American criminal justice for centuries. The study also found that legislative language was often so vague and imprecise that even most lawyers could not determine what specific conduct was regulated.

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Wetland law in Michigan is a good example of how innocent property owners can be criminally charged with violating wetland laws that they cannot understand. The definition of Michigan wetland law is so broad that even state regulators and wetland experts often disagree on what constitutes a wetland. There are numerous cases in the state where property owners have been criminally charged with filling a wetland when they had no idea their property even contained a wetland.

Lawmakers should strike all criminal language from state wetland statutes. Until the Department of Environmental Quality specifically identifies all the wetlands on private property in the state, private property owners in the state are subject to criminal prosecution — a threat to liberty that every should concern everyone.