Some Federal Statutes Dispense With Proving Criminal Intent
The U.S. Constitution mentions three federal crimes by citizens: treason, piracy and counterfeiting. By the turn of the 20th century, the number of criminal statutes numbered in the dozens. Today, there are an estimated 4,500 crimes in federal statutes, according the Wall Street Journal.
There are also thousands of regulations that carry criminal penalties. Some laws are so complex, scholars debate whether they represent one offense, or scores of offenses.
Counting them is impossible. The Justice Department spent two years trying in the 1980s, but produced only an estimate: 3,000 federal criminal offenses.
The American Bar Association tried in the late 1990s, but concluded only that the number was likely much higher than 3,000. The ABA's report said "the amount of individual citizen behavior now potentially subject to federal criminal control has increased in astonishing proportions in the last few decades."
According to the Wall Street Journal, some of these new federal statutes don't require prosecutors to prove criminal intent, eroding a bedrock principle in English and American law. The absence of this provision, known as mens rea, makes prosecution easier, critics argue.
As federal criminal statutes have ballooned, it has become increasingly easy for Americans to end up on the wrong side of the law. Many of the new federal laws also set a lower bar for conviction than in the past: Prosecutors don't necessarily need to show that the defendant had criminal intent, reported the Wall Street Journal.
A study last year by the Heritage Foundation and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers analyzed scores of proposed and enacted new laws for nonviolent crimes in the 109th Congress of 2005 and 2006. It found of the 36 new crimes created, a quarter had no mens rea requirement and nearly 40% more had only a "weak" one.
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