If you live or do business in the United States, you're almost certainly a criminal, even if you don't know it. In New Jersey, you can be arrested for driving by your own home.
In Florida, a man was sentenced to six years in prison for carrying cash. In Pennsylvania, a woman faces prison for yelling obscenities at her clogged toilet. And under federal law, you can be imprisoned for withdrawing lawfully-earned currency from your own bank account.
The common thread of these stories is criminalization: the conversion of conduct that was once merely socially stigmatized or subject to fines or other civil sanctions into a criminal offense.
Are you abusive, or does your spouse or partner say that you are? Domestic violence laws in New Jersey and numerous other states mandate the arrest of a male based on recommendations from a social worker.
The social worker may recommend a man's detention for spousal abuse based on a woman's testimony alone.
Driving by your own home can be grounds for a criminal complaint. Who hasn't ever carried cash in their wallet? In Florida, it's a criminal offense to do so: a court sentenced a man to six years in jail for the crime of possessing a cocaine-contaminated dollar bill.
An appellate court ordered the man released only after local newspapers revealed that the overwhelming majority of currency circulating in the state was tainted with narcotics residues.
Do you become frustrated because your appliances at home don't operate properly? In Pennsylvania, a woman who allegedly shouted profanities at her overflowing toilet within earshot of a neighbor faces up to 90 days in jail. Have you ever withdrawn cash from a US bank account?
Better be careful, because if you withdraw more than US$10,000 in a series of "related" transactions, you may be guilty of a federal crime called structuring, and face a prison sentence of five years, a US$250,000 fine, and confiscation of the entire bank account under civil forfeiture laws. Are you a terrorist?
You may not think that you are, but under the USA PATRIOT Act and other federal laws, practically all forms of domestic protest could be considered "terrorism." Once the government classifies you as a terrorist, it can seize and ultimately forfeit everything you own, whether or not those assets are connected to terrorism.
Then, under the Military Commissions Act, it can detain you indefinitely, without ever charging you with a crime. These examples merely scratch the surface of the overwhelming trend of criminalization.
The trend won't be reversed until we convince lawmakers that criminal sanctions aren't necessarily the best way to deal with moral, social, or political problems and disputes. In the meantime, the only way to protect yourself is to ask, before engaging in even the most seemingly innocent activity or transaction: "is there any way I might get arrested for this?"
The answer may not always be obvious, but a little research online or at a law library may at least shed light on the potential for criminal liability.
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Nestmann