If you’re an American, you probably break the law every day, often without even knowing it:
Do you own a dog? You could face six months in federal prison if you walk it on federal lands with a leash longer than six feet.
In Utah, a woman who sent text messages to her husband while she was in court was sentenced to 30 days in jail.
In Pennsylvania, a woman was arrested for yelling obscenities at her clogged toilet. Thankfully, she was later acquitted of this “crime.”
In Arizona, you could face 25 years in prison for cutting down a cactus.
In Mississippi, it is illegal for a male to be sexually aroused in public.
We all understand that we could be punished for engaging in inherently wrongful conduct – crimes like murder, robbery, rape, etc. But the law now criminalizes entire categories of activities that you might never dream are illegal.
And our system of “justice” can throw you in prison even if you had no intent to commit an illegal act. In most cases, “ignorance of the law is no excuse.”
For instance, you could violate federal money laundering laws if you withdraw lawfully earned cash from your own bank account in a manner that makes it appear that you’re trying to avoid a currency reporting requirement. This is a federal crime called “structuring,” and you could face a five-year prison term if found guilty.
It’s also a crime to lie to a federal official, even if you’re not under oath. The official has no obligation to warn you, and you could be imprisoned even if you’re not trying to cheat Uncle Sam out of money. Those of us of a certain age will recall the imprisonment of television personality Martha Stewart in the early 2000s. Among other charges, she was convicted of lying to federal investigators.
Many states have similar laws in place. Hence, we’ll repeat our longstanding advice to never answer questions from a law enforcement official except at the advice of an attorney.
There are also many crimes in which everyone involved participates willingly, and there is no victim. Drug offenses and prostitution are examples. Thus, a homeless man was sentenced to life in prison because he helped broker the sale of $10 worth of marijuana.
And if you commit an offense that’s actually recognized as a crime, get ready for a very long prison term. That’s especially true if you’re what dozens of states consider a “habitual offender.” For instance, a Louisiana man was sentenced to life in prison for attempting to steal hedge clippers. Previously, he’d been convicted of possessing stolen merchandise, attempting to forge a check, and burglary.
Today, nearly 2.3 million people are confined in America’s prison system – 1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,134 local jails, and hundreds more tribal prisons, military prisons, and immigration detention facilities. More than ten times as many people are incarcerated today in our country than in 1972, while the overall population has grown by only 50%.
America has the dubious distinction of having the world’s highest incarceration rate. It’s more than twice as high as Russia; indeed, the United States has about 500,000 more prison inmates than China, despite having less than one-fourth of its population.
Given these facts, it’s not surprising that some states are reconsidering habitual offender laws and taking steps to free inmates that have spent decades in prison for committing relatively minor offenses. Uncle Sam, though, isn’t joining in.
In 2003 there were “only” 4,000 federal offenses that carried criminal penalties. But by 2013, that number had grown to 4,850. And since 2000, at least 55 offenders have been sentenced to terms of 200 years or more in federal prison. One defendant was sentenced to 1,590 years.
Since America is almost unique in incarcerating so many people, “getting out of Dodge” can provide some relief from our country’s cancer of criminalization.
But if you have any interest in gaining second residency in another country or a second passport, don’t wait until some inadvertent slipup results in an arrest and possible felony conviction. Once you have a criminal record, you’ll find it much more difficult to acquire legal residence anywhere else.
There couldn’t be a better time than now to begin, while the coast is clear.