"You don't need to know. You can't know." That's what Kathy Norris, a 60-year-old grandmother of eight, was told when she tried to ask court officials why, the day before, federal agents had subjected her home to a furious search.First, why does Fish and Wildlife Service have a SWAT team. Second, why are SWAT Members conducting a search of a private home against someone who must be so dangers that they cultivate orchids? Third, the story doesn't say if the search was conducted with a warrant (I certainly hope it was, but that is not clear). Fourth, why is it only now that Congress is conducting hearing on the growth of federal criminal statutes.
The agents who spent half a day ransacking Mrs. Norris' longtime home in Spring, Texas, answered no questions while they emptied file cabinets, pulled books off shelves, rifled through drawers and closets, and threw the contents on the floor.
The six agents, wearing SWAT gear and 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 their 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 of cultivating, importing and selling orchids.
Mrs. Norris testified before the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime 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 problem with overcriminalization is not that we have more criminals, but that so many regulations created and implemented by federal agencies, acting under poorly ceded Congressional delegation now carry criminal penalties for what could best be considered oversights or at worst misunderstandings of the law.
Some criminal laws are easy to understand and to be frank, commons sense. We know we are not supposed to steal, kill or drive a motor vehicle under the influence. It is not just that these actions are criminal by our standards, it is that they are easy to understand. But too many regulations means that the average guy on the street can't possibly know what is criminal and what is not when complying with regulations. The fact that someone can go to federal prison for two years because his paperwork was improper is ludicrous on its face.
But that it happens tells me that we have too many laws on teh books and not enough Congressional oversight. When a regulation is proposed by a federal agency, it must go through a notice and comment period and then must be sent to Congress for final approval. Take a single day out of the Federal Register and you will find dozens of proposed regulations for dozens of agencies. There is no way for Congress to examine and consider these regulations, so for the most part they get a rubber stamp. Lo and behold, a federal criminal regulation is put in place and Congress didn't really pay attention.
Add to it the fact that, as we have learned, Congress doesn't read all of the bills they create, let alone all the regulations that are passed pursuant to a law they passed. If Congress can't be bothered to read its own work product, can we really expect Congress to read the work product of federal agencies.