History buffs familiar with Connecticut’s infamous “blue laws” from Colonial times, which prohibited offenses ranging from committing adultery to catching eels on Sunday, may find amusement in the federal code’s share of sometimes bizarre rules and regulations that make it easier than ever to be charged with a felony.
In all, there are about 300,000 different ways to break federal law in the United States today, according to white-collar defense attorney Mike Chase of Hartford’s Shipman & Goodwin, whose new book, “How to Become a Federal Criminal,” was released Tuesday.
While assisting clients with government investigations and criminal and civil litigation, Chase saw the sheer volume of federal prohibitions on the books and decided a few years ago to begin listing a new one each day. His Twitter feed, A Crime a Day, has become a springboard for deeper conversations and humorous exchanges about federal law.
“I started in 2014, posting one original federal crime a day,” said Chase, a UConn Law grad and Suffield native, in an interview. “The idea goes back to the 1980s when the Department of Justice decided to count all the crimes that are on the books. They worked on it for about two years. “Then they gave up,” he said.
To maintain “A Crime a Day” and inform “How to Become a Federal Criminal,” Chase said he has averaged about two hours of research per night for the past five years. Some of the laws he has covered sound sensible and appropriate, i.e.: it is a federal crime to give explosives to someone who is under indictment for a felony. Others tend to stretch credulity.
It is a federal crime for a U.S. Department of Agriculture employee to reveal how a potato producer has voted in a potato referendum, for instance. It’s also a felony to sell Parmesan cheese “that isn’t easy to grate.” And if you’re thinking about shooting geese from a sailboat or leaving North or South Carolina with an ear of unshucked corn, think again. There are laws that cover explosive kites, runny ketchup, naked sailors and pregnant polar bears.
As a result, “How to Become a Federal Criminal” has already received wide praise, including testimonials from former Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and the state’s current senator, Mike Lee, who both called the book “hilarious.”
“Congress and federal regulators have criminalized far too much conduct, including many seemingly innocuous activities that the average person would never think are crimes,” Hatch conveyed. “This indispensable volume can help readers avoid the slammer by taking care, among other things, not to shoot geese from a sailboat, walk a dog in a national park with an extra-long leash, or write a check for less than a dollar. Such iniquitous conduct simply cannot be tolerated.”
Though Chase does not estimate how many federal crimes the average American commits, he acknowledged that attorney Harvey Silverglate ventured an answer in his 2009 book, “Three Felonies a Day.” With more crimes being added to the federal code each year than are removed, it is reasonable to believe the frequency has increased.
While federal offenses can range from the unusual to the hysterical, Chase said his underlying aim is to help people understand the law, recognize when revisions may be necessary and engage in productive dialogue.
“One of the broader issues is, of course, people don’t walk around with lawyers with them all the time, so it’s hard to know if something is prohibited or not,” Chase said. In one case that made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the justices sought to determine whether a fish tossed from a boat qualified as a tangible object under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. “It’s a grossly inefficient way to find out what the law is,” Chase said.
But seemingly trivial and outlandish federal laws are not new in the United States, and each year the quantity increases. “I go through prosecutions for some of the more arcane laws on the books, some that have not been used for 100 or so years and finally got dusted off fairly recently,” Chase said.
Problems with the federal code today include overly broad federal statutes that grant authority to government agencies, which develop their own sets of prohibitions. As a result, a single law passed by Congress can put 50 or more new punishable offenses into effect. Now that there are some 300,000 of these laws, Chase acknowledged it would take him until the year 2848 to comprehensively finish the “Crime a Day” project.
Congress has periodically introduced “clean up the code” acts aimed at trimming away unnecessary edicts, but the efforts are invariably regarded as novelty bills and fail to gain traction. Chase said an important start for reform-minded legislators would be requiring prosecutors to determine criminal intent before applying federal law. He also said federal agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service and the Food and Drug Administration should not be given blanket prosecutorial authority. “If something is going to be a crime, the Legislature should say so explicitly,” he said.
Though politicians aren’t eager to hang their hats on anything that may appear soft on crime, Chase said he believes there is bipartisan support for cleaning up the federal code. “I do think it is hard for people to have respect for the law when they feel they are hopelessly up against the government,” he said. “And when the law is inherently unable to be understood, it contributes to people feeling jaded about the criminal justice system. These are issues that are very easy to ignore, and because of that I’m hoping to bring this into the pop culture conversation. I think there’s an opportunity for people to start petitioning for real, functional change in Washington.”
In the meantime, “How to Become a Federal Criminal” is an educational read that is a good source for laughs.