“You don’t need to know. You can’t know.” That’s what Kathy Norris, a 60-year-old grandmother of eight, was told when she tried to ask court officials why, the day before, federal agents had subjected her home to a furious search.
The agents who spent half a day ransacking Mrs. Norris’ longtime home in Spring, Texas, answered no questions while they emptied file cabinets, pulled books off shelves, rifled through drawers and closets, and threw the contents on the floor.
The six agents, wearing SWAT gear and carrying weapons, were with - get this- the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Kathy and George Norris lived under the specter of a covert government investigation for almost six months before the government unsealed a secret indictment and revealed why the Fish and Wildlife Service had treated their family home as if it were a training base for suspected terrorists. Orchids.
That’s right. Orchids.
By March 2004, federal prosecutors were well on their way to turning 66-year-old retiree George Norris into an inmate in a federal penitentiary - based on his home-based business of cultivating, importing and selling orchids.
Mrs. Norris testified before the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime this summer. The hearing’s topic: the rapid and dangerous expansion of federal criminal law, an expansion that is often unprincipled and highly partisan.
Chairman Robert C. Scott, Virginia Democrat, and ranking member Louie Gohmert, Texas Republican, conducted a truly bipartisan hearing (a D.C. rarity this year).
These two leaders have begun giving voice to the increasing number of experts who worry about “overcriminalization.” Astronomical numbers of federal criminal laws lack specifics, can apply to almost anyone and fail to protect innocents by requiring substantial proof that an accused person acted with actual criminal intent.
Mr. Norris ended up spending almost two years in prison because he didn’t have the proper paperwork for some of the many orchids he imported. The orchids were all legal - but Mr. Norris and the overseas shippers who had packaged the flowers had failed to properly navigate the many, often irrational, paperwork requirements the U.S. imposed when it implemented an arcane international treaty’s new restrictions on trade in flowers and other flora.
The judge who sentenced Mr. Norris had some advice for him and his wife: “Life sometimes presents us with lemons.” Their job was, yes, to “turn lemons into lemonade.”
The judge apparently failed to appreciate how difficult it is to run a successful lemonade stand when you’re an elderly diabetic with coronary complications, arthritis and Parkinson’s disease serving time in a federal penitentiary. If only Mr. Norris had been a Libyan terrorist, maybe some European official at least would have weighed in on his behalf to secure a health-based mercy release.
Krister Evertson, another victim of overcriminalization, told Congress, “What I have experienced in these past years is something that should scare you and all Americans.” He’s right. Evertson, a small-time entrepreneur and inventor, faced two separate federal prosecutions stemming from his work trying to develop clean-energy fuel cells.
The feds prosecuted Mr. Evertson the first time for failing to put a federally mandated sticker on an otherwise lawful UPS package in which he shipped some of his supplies. A jury acquitted him, so the feds brought new charges. This time they claimed he technically had “abandoned” his fuel-cell materials - something he had no intention of doing - while defending himself against the first charges. Mr. Evertson, too, spent almost two years in federal prison.
As George Washington University law professor Stephen Saltzburg testified at the House hearing, cases like these “illustrate about as well as you can illustrate the overreach of federal criminal law.” The Cato Institute’s Timothy Lynch, an expert on overcriminalization, called for “a clean line between lawful conduct and unlawful conduct.” A person should not be deemed a criminal unless that person “crossed over that line knowing what he or she was doing.” Seems like common sense, but apparently it isn’t to some federal officials.