“Every new criminal law gives prosecutors more power,” writes Radley Balko. “Once we have so many laws that it’s likely we’re all breaking at least one of them, the prosecutor’s job is no longer about enforcing the laws, but about choosing which laws to enforce.”
And when Balko writes about the growth in our criminal code, he’s not kidding:
There have been a number of projects that attempted to count the total number of federal criminal laws. They usually give up. The federal criminal code is just too complex, too convoluted, and too weighted down with duplications, overlapping laws, and other complications to come to a definite number. But by most estimates, there are at least 4,000 separate criminal laws at the federal level, with another 10,000 to 300,000 regulations that can be enforced criminally. Just this year 400 new federal laws took effect, as did 29,000 new state laws. The civil libertarian and defense attorney Harvey Silverglate has argued that most Americans now unknowingly now commit about three felonies per day.
But you, citizen, are expected to know and comply with all of these laws. That isn’t possible, of course. It would probably take you most of the year to understand them all, at which point you’d have the next year’s batch of new laws to learn. You’d probably also need to hire a team of attorneys to help you translate the laws into terms you can understand. After the McCain-Feingold legislation passed in 2003, for example, both parties held weekly, three-hour classes just to educate members of Congress on how to comply with the bill they had just passed. This is a bill they wrote that applied to themselves, and they still had to bring in high-paid lawyers explain to them how not to break it.
Ignorantia legis neminem excusat. Ignorance of the law is no excuse.
Except, what if there are so many laws that not even the lawmakers themselves can follow them?
In addendum to Balko’s examples, what of the prodigious number of Obama administration members who were also tax violators up to and including outgoing Secretary of the Treasury Tim “Turbo Tax” Geithner who was, ostensibly, also head of the IRS?
And still we want more. We criminalize certain sizes of ammunition magazines. We criminalize certain sizes of fountain drinks. We have laws of everything to the point where it’s hard to have a lot of respect for the law at all.
Famed New York Congressman Fiorello La Guardia said of alcohol prohibition that it created “contempt and disregard for the law all over the country.”
That’s what’s happening with our endless proliferation of laws from both the state and federal level. Every year sees more laws and regulations passed that Americans must comply with, and every year our respect for the rule of law falls a little further.