Are they kidding? The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wearing SWAT gear and weapons, ransacked the home of grandparents in Spring, Texas back in 2003 while in search of not terrorist activities, but an illegal orchid activity. The federal government over-reaches, and overcriminalization continues.
Overcriminalization describes the efforts by government to criminalize mistakes that people make that would previously be dealt with by a friendly reminder letter or maybe a civil penalty with a fine.
The Washington Times has a commentary piece today on overcriminalization, and the House Judiciary sub-committee held hearings on the subject 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.
The times does briefly go into the orchid case, but for details, I dug up this case study from July 2009 that reviews the treatment of George Norris, who had an orchid-growing hobby that expanded into a thriving business.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service went bat-crazy on Norris during a five year period, and he spent two years in federal prison. Read the full post over at Overcriminalized.com – it’s a long read, but I think it is worth it.
Norris, who had seen the officers arrive and surround his house, answered the knock at the door with trepidation. Odom was matter-of-fact. Within 10 seconds, he had identified himself, stated that he was executing a search warrant, and waved in the rest of the entry team for a sweep of the premises. Norris was ordered to sit at his kitchen table and to remain there until told otherwise. One agent was stationed in the kitchen with him.
As Norris looked on, the agents ransacked his home. They pulled out drawers and dumped the contents on the floor, emptied file cabinets, rifled through dresser drawers and closets, and pulled books off of their shelves.
When Norris asked one agent why his home was the subject of a warrant, the agent read him his Miranda rights and told him simply that he was not charged with anything at this time or under arrest. Norris asked more questions–What were they searching for? What law did they think had been broken? What were their names and badge numbers?–but the agents refused to answer anything. Finally, they handed over the search warrant, but they would not let Norris get up to retrieve his reading glasses from his office; only an agent could do that.
It was as if he were under arrest, but in his own home.
Attached to the warrant was an excerpt of an e-mail message, from two years earlier, in which a man named Arturo offered to have his mother “smuggle” orchids from Ecuador in a suitcase and send them to Norris from Miami. Norris remembered the exchange; he had declined the offer and had stated that he could not accept any plants that were not accompanied by legal documentation.
Norris eventually plead guilty after years of fighting paperwork charges and spent about two years in federal prison. To this day he knows that he did nothing wrong – or at least had no intent of doing anything wrong – and he regrets the guilty plea.