You don’t need to know. You can’t know.”
That’s what Kathy Norris, a 60-year-old grandmother of eight, was told in October 2003 when she asked court officials why federal agents had subjected her home to a furious search. The agents who ransacked the Norrises’ longtime home in Spring, Texas, answered no questions while they emptied file cabinets, pulled books off shelves, rifled through drawers and closets, and threw their contents on the floor. The six SWAT-clad agents carrying weapons were with – get this – the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Kathy and George Norris lived under the specter of a covert government investigation for almost six months before the government unsealed a secret indictment and revealed why the Fish and Wildlife Service had treated the Norrises’ family home as if it were a training base for suspected terrorists.
Orchids. That’s right. Orchids.
By March 2004, federal prosecutors were well on their way to turning 66-year-old retiree George Norris into an inmate in a federal penitentiary – based on his home-based business cultivating, importing and selling orchids. Kathy Norris testified before the House Crime Subcommittee this summer.
The topic: the rapid and dangerous expansion of federal criminal law, an expansion that is often unprincipled and highly partisan.
Chairman Bobby Scott, D-Va., and ranking member Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, conducted a truly bipartisan hearing (a rarity this year). These two leaders have begun giving voice to the increasing number of experts worried 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.
George Norris ended up spending almost two years in prison because he lacked the proper paperwork for some of the orchids he imported. The orchids themselves were all legal. But George and the overseas shippers who packaged the flowers failed to properly navigate the many, often irrational, paperwork requirements the United States imposed when it implemented an arcane international treaty’s new restrictions on trade in flowers and other flora.
Krister Evertson, another victim of overcriminalization, told Congress, “What I have experienced in these past years is something that should scare you and all Americans.”
Krister, a small-time entrepreneur and inventor, faced two separate federal prosecutions stemming from his work trying to develop clean-energy fuel cells. The feds prosecuted Krister the first time for failing to put a federally mandated sticker on an otherwise lawful UPS package in which he shipped some of his supplies. A jury acquitted him, so the feds brought new charges. This time they alleged he technically “abandoned” his fuel-cell materials – something he had no intention of doing – while defending himself against the first charges. Krister, too, spent almost two years in federal prison.
As George Washington University law professor Stephen Saltzburg testified at this summer’s hearing, cases like these “illustrate about as well as you can illustrate the overreach of federal criminal law.”
The Cato Institute’s Timothy Lynch called for “a clean line between lawful conduct and unlawful conduct.”
Former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh captured the essence of the problems that worry so many criminal-law experts: “Those of us concerned about this subject share a common goal – to have criminal statutes that punish actual criminal acts and do not seek to criminalize conduct that is better dealt with by the seeking of regulatory and civil remedies.”
The Norrises’ nightmare didn’t end until George was released from federal supervision in December 2008. Kathy testified, however, that even after he came home, the man she married was gone. George was then 71. Serving two years as a federal convict – then years more defending unsuccessfully against the charges – took 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 Krister Evertson is right that everyone else should be scared. Far too many federal laws are far too broad.
Reps. Scott and 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 should follow their lead.
Since the Internet took root as a mass communications phenomenon in the mid 1990s, a quiet war has raged in Washington over the extent to which the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would regulate the new medium.
Until, now the Internet has been largely self-regulated, and the FCC has taken a hands-off approach.
But that could change dramatically soon if the Obama administration has its way.
During the weekend, press reports revealed a stunning development: The Obama administration will announce Monday that the FCC would propose new rules to embrace what it calls “Net Neutrality.”
Obama’s new Federal Communications Commission chairman, Julius Genachowski, will use a speech to the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank, to announce the FCC proposals, according to those reports.
On the face of it, Net Neutrality appears to be a fair proposal.
But in reality, the proposals are nothing more than a backdoor way for the FCC to tighten federal control over the Internet by beginning with the regulation of Internet service providers.
The battle lines over Net Neutrality have formed along partisan and ideological lines.
Republicans have opposed Net Neutrality, suggesting self regulation has worked well.
“I want a vibrant Internet just like they do,” Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, said three years ago during the 2006 House debate over the issue. “Our disagreement is about how to achieve that. They say let the government dictate it . . . I urge my colleagues to reject government regulation of the Internet.”
The previous FCC chairman, Kevin Martin, opposed Net Neutrality. He suggested it was not needed.
Conservatives see Net Neutrality as a power grab that will benefit big Internet players such as Amazon and Google while stifling smaller competitors.
The libertarian CATO Institute, in a 2004 policy analysis concluded: “The regulatory regime envisioned by Net Neutrality mandates would also open the door to a great deal of potential ‘gaming’ of the regulatory system and allow firms to use the regulatory system to hobble competitors. Worse yet, it would encourage more FCC regulation of the Internet and broadband markets in general.”
Some years ago when I worked at the libertarian Cato Institute, we used to label any new hire who had not yet read “Atlas Shrugged” a “virgin.” Being conversant in Ayn Rand’s classic novel about the economic carnage caused by big government run amok was practically a job requirement. If only “Atlas” were required reading for every member of Congress and political appointee in the Obama administration. I’m confident that we’d get out of the current financial mess a lot faster.
Many of us who know Rand’s work have noticed that with each passing week, and with each successive bailout plan and economic-stimulus scheme out of Washington, our current politicians are committing the very acts of economic lunacy that “Atlas Shrugged” parodied in 1957, when this 1,000-page novel was first published and became an instant hit.
Rand, who had come to America from Soviet Russia with striking insights into totalitarianism and the destructiveness of socialism, was already a celebrity. The left, naturally, hated her. But as recently as 1991, a survey by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club found that readers rated “Atlas” as the second-most influential book in their lives, behind only the Bible.
For the uninitiated, the moral of the story is simply this: Politicians invariably respond to crises — that in most cases they themselves created — by spawning new government programs, laws and regulations. These, in turn, generate more havoc and poverty, which inspires the politicians to create more programs . . . and the downward spiral repeats itself until the productive sectors of the economy collapse under the collective weight of taxes and other burdens imposed in the name of fairness, equality and do-goodism.
If you would like to read the rest of this great article by Stephen Moore, please go to: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123146363567166677.html