A recent article in The Wall Street Journal takes an in-depth look at federal laws and some of the general requirements needed to prove someone committed one. The article looks at laws related to many different areas and explains how across most areas, provisions requiring a prosecutor to prove that a person willfully or knowingly broke a federal law in order to convict that person have been reduced or eliminated all together.
Because federal crimes now number in the thousands and include many laws that a reasonable citizen would not know about, there is a high risk that someone will be convicted for a crime that they committed, but had no idea was against the law. The WSJ gives an example in a domestic violence probation case in 1999.
The WSJ tells the story of a man who was found guilty of violating a federal law that says that people who have been convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence charge cannot possess guns. The man was convicted of domestic violence in the beginning of the 1990s. At the time he was convicted, this federal law was not in place. It was passed into law after his conviction, but the misdemeanor domestic violence conviction remained on his record.
The man had no idea that this law had been passed after his conviction, but the law was applied to him anyway. Prosecutors did not have to prove that he broke the law on purpose, but only that the man knew he had guns. The man was convicted, and he was sentenced to five years’ probation.
Congress passes many laws every year that do not include mens rea provisions. Many judges and some lawmakers have complained about the way these laws are sloppily put together without criminal intent requirements and left to courts to sort out. These people are working on ways to reform how laws are made in Congress.
Source: The Wall Street Journal, “As Federal Crime List Grows, Threshold of Guilt Declines,” Gary Fields and John R. Emshwiller, Sept. 27, 2011