”The government,” wrote 50-year-old Denise Simon, “is too big to fight.” With those words, in a note to her 17-year-old son, Adam, she explained why she was committing suicide (via carbon monoxide) three days after 10 visibly armed IRS agents in bulletproof vests had stormed her home on Nov. 6, 2007, in search of evidence of tax evasion. Her 10-year-old daughter, Rachel, was there with Simon when the agents stormed in.
“I cannot live in terror of being accused of things I did not do,” she wrote to Adam. To the rest of the world, in a separate suicide note, she wrote: “I am currently a danger to my children. I am bringing armed officers into their home. I am compelled to distance myself from them for their safety.”
Granted, suicide is neither a common nor a proportionate response to an armed search warrant. But neither is an armed raid on the home of a family that (according to husband Jim Simon) had never before even been warned that anything was wrong with their tax returns. Obviously, trauma of the armed-raid variety can cause its victims to react in sadly illogical ways.
Denise Simon’s tragic fate is one of a growing number of horror stories of bureaucrats, enforcing regulations of nonviolent conduct the perpetrator may not have even suspected was illegal, brandishing weapons they arguably don’t need. These two problems - overcriminalization of essentially harmless conduct and overarming of agents in nondangerous circumstances - combine to create a federal government that can be terribly frightening.
Most Americans understand why agents of the FBI, the Secret Service and some other federal agencies need weapons. Yet most would be puzzled by the proliferation of arms in departments where employees usually are seen as paper pushers. At least all of the following departments, quite bizarrely, feature armed agents: the National Park Service; the IRS; the Postal Inspection Service; the Departments of Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Labor, and Veterans Affairs; the Bureaus of Land Management and Indian Affairs, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service; and even the Small Business Administration and the Railroad Retirement Board.
Agents in some of these entities seem prone to ostentatious shows of force or to sending in armed FBI personnel on unnecessary occasions. There was the November 1997 raid on the Massachusetts pollution-control-technology company owned by James M. Knott Sr., in which 21 EPA agents, many armed, swooped in to collect “discharge” readings - and then falsified the results. Similarly, an April 29, 1998, New York Times story reported that “three businessmen told the Senate Finance Committee today of Internal Revenue Service agents who, with guns drawn, broke down doors, terrified workers and forced teenage girls to change clothes in front of male agents in raids at the men’s homes and businesses.”
Consider also the case, now infamous, of inventor Krister Evertson. On May 27, 2004, Mr. Evertson was preparing in Wasilla, Alaska, for a private gold-mining expedition to raise more funds for his research into clean-energy fuel cells. Federal agents in two black sport utility vehicles, waving assault rifles, forced his car off the road. Manhandling him as if he were a terrorist, they arrested, interrogated and jailed him. For what? Putting the wrong shipping label - with the correct instructions, mind you, but still the wrong label - on a box of raw sodium that he sold on eBay.
That last example comes from the chapter I contributed to a book published earlier this year by the Heritage Foundation titled “One Nation Under Arrest,” which highlights the problem of what former Attorney General Edwin Meese calls “overcriminalization” - the “far too many criminal laws that create traps for the innocent but unwary.” Mr. Meese writes that there are more than 4,000 separate criminal offenses in the U.S. Code and that “the federal government could use the criminal process to enforce as many as 300,000 federal regulations.”
Edited by current and former Heritage experts Paul Rosenzweig and Brian W. Walsh, “One Nation Under Arrest” contains the tales of lobstermen jailed for eight years for using plastic instead of cardboard to import their catch, a grandmother charged as a criminal for letting her hedges grow too high, a gentle retiree imprisoned for 17 months for having the wrong paperwork for his imported orchids and similar horror stories.
“Overcriminalization is a big problem … [caused by] weak politicians and legislators,” said Joseph diGenova, a former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, in a June 3 interview. “This farcical journey of criminalization … is no less than the micromanagement of American life.”
Heritage’s Mr. Walsh also joined with Tiffany Joslyn of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to publish, in May, a booklet called “Without Intent: How Congress Is Eroding the Criminal Intent Requirement in Federal Law.”
“No person should be convicted of a crime without the government having proved that he acted with a guilty mind,” they wrote. Yet, after an exhaustive study of nonviolent criminal offenses introduced in a recent Congress, they found that “over 57 percent of the offenses considered by the 109th Congress contained inadequate ‘mens rea’ [guilty mind] requirements, putting the innocent at risk of criminal punishment.”
Of those proposals actually enacted into law, 63.9 percent of them lacked appropriate protections.
On its face, this federal government habit of overcriminalization, without regard to the intent of the perpetrator, is a serious threat to civil liberties. When combined with gun-toting bureaucrats on search-and-seizure power trips, it’s also a threat to limb and life. These are the threats to life, liberty and reason that are engendering the nationwide backlash against a government out of control. Quite rightly, that backlash is sending incumbent congressmen to bitter defeat across the country. The ballot box makes our government not yet quite “too big to fight.” But it’s awfully close to being too big even for the innocent to defeat - and it’s awfully scary.
Quin Hillyer is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Times. He can be reached at Qhillyer@washingtontimes.com.