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Does the US Have Too Many Criminal Laws?

Ignorance of the law is no excuse, though some may argue that, at least in some cases, it should be. Criminal law involves serious penalties such as imprisonment, forfeiture of money, property, and even your life. Because of this, criminal laws have traditionally included a requirement of intent. In order to prove that someone is guilty of murder, one of the elements is to prove that the person intended to commit the crime. People who cause injury by neglect or ignorance are generally treated differently from those who intend to cause harm.


Last year, the United States Congress proposed 447 new non-violent criminal offenses. With this continuing flood of criminal legislation, there is an increasing likelihood that honest, law-abiding citizens are committing crimes without even knowing it. It's called overcriminalization. The intent requirement is the protection from this in American society. No citizen is expected to know from memory the more than 4,450 federal statutory crimes and tens of thousands of offenses specified by federal regulations.

The problem is that this flood of new crimes and offenses are contained in legislation, which is often poorly written, or worse, which leaves interpretation of the legislation up to the agencies that are enforcing it. Many of these new offenses do not have a specific requirement that intent needs to be proven. A recent study by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and The Heritage Foundation confirms that too many federal laws lack an adequate criminal intent requirement.

Recommended Remedies

How can this be remedied? The report recommends five reforms. The first is to enact default criminal intent rules. Whenever a law is passed by Congress that does not specify whether criminal intent must be proven, the default rules would come into play and require that intent be proven.

The second reform would be to codify the legal concept that when a criminal law is subject to two interpretations, the interpretation most beneficial to the defendant must be used. Although many courts use this principle, it is not a written law. The third reform is to require all proposed changes to federal criminal law to be referred to the Senate or House Judicial Committees for approval before being considered. Finally, a regular report on all new criminal legislation and heightened focus on better drafting of legislation should be enacted.

Overcriminalization was addressed at a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security this past fall. Hopefully, Congress will grant further consideration to this issue in the future.