Criminalizing everyone

Former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh’s testimony captured the essence of the problems that worry so many criminal-law experts. “Those of us concerned about this subject,” he testified, “share a common goal - to have criminal statutes that punish actual criminal acts and [that] do not seek to criminalize conduct that is better dealt with by the seeking of regulatory and civil remedies.” Only when the conduct is sufficiently wrongful and severe, Mr. Thornburgh said, does it warrant the “stigma, public condemnation and potential deprivation of liberty that go along with [the criminal] sanction.”

The Norrises’ nightmare began with the search in October 2003. It didn’t end until Mr. Norris was released from federal supervision in December 2008. His wife testified, however, that even after he came home, the man she had married was still gone. He was by then 71 years old. Unsurprisingly, serving two years as a federal convict - in addition to the years it took to defend unsuccessfully against the charges - had taken a severe toll on him mentally, emotionally and physically.

These are repressive consequences for an elderly man who made mistakes in a small business. The feds should be ashamed, and Mr. Evertson is right that everyone else should be scared. Far too many federal laws are far too broad.

Mr. Scott and Mr. Gohmert have set the stage for more hearings on why this places far too many Americans at risk of unjust punishment. Members of both parties in Congress should follow their lead.

Brian W. Walsh is senior legal research fellow in the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

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