MIDLAND, Mich. — Michigan’s regulatory code is vast, often outdated and simply impossible for the typical Michigander to fully understand. Nevertheless, violating an administrative rule may make you a criminal. A study published today by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy highlights this problem with specific examples from Michigan.
Regulatory crimes are created when the state Legislature empowers a Michigan state department to write rules concerning a particular law. Often, the Legislature will decree that anyone who violates the statute or the rules created under it is guilty of a crime and punishable by law. This process empowers unelected bureaucrats to define criminal behavior.
The report, "Michigan’s Regulatory Crimes: Bureaucrats’ Hidden Criminal Law,” highlights the problems with this approach. Empowering state departments in this way contributes to the problem of overcriminalization — the idea that there are too many criminally enforceable laws that can make criminals of otherwise perfectly law-abiding and well-intentioned citizens.
“Although the problem of regulatory crimes has received less attention than other criminal justice issues, scholars have long-questioned the legitimacy of granting these powers to administrative agencies,” said Michael Van Beek, author of the study and director of research at the Mackinac Center.
There are other more practical problems with regulatory crimes. Many of them are outdated, confusing and even incomprehensible. This leads to uncertainty about whether or not the rules apply and what the penalty might be for violating them.
Other rules are so ill-defined that the typical Michigander could not know for sure if they were complying. Others have just the opposite problem, being overly specific and technical. Several rules are simply impossible to comply with. These characteristics make consistent enforcement of the rules unachievable.
“The sheer volume of rules weakens the rule of law, because administrative agencies must pick and choose which rules to enforce and which ones to let slide,” Van Beek said. “To the public, the law appears arbitrarily enforced.”
The study recommends that the Legislature re-establish itself as the only governmental body able to define criminal behavior and penalties. Further, it recommends defaulting to noncriminal penalties for rule violations. These reforms will help better protect the legal rights of Michiganders.
The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is a nonprofit research and educational institute that advances the principles of free markets and limited government. Through our research and education programs, we challenge government overreach and advocate for a free-market approach to public policy that frees people to realize their potential and dreams.
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