Criminal Justice

Laws Are Made To Be Broken

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What bored prosecutors do for fun:

Junior and senior prosecutors would sit around, and someone would name a random celebrity—say, Mother Theresa or John Lennon.

It would then be up to the junior prosecutors to figure out a plausible crime for which to indict him or her. The crimes were not usually rape, murder, or other crimes you'd see on Law & Order but rather the incredibly broad yet obscure crimes that populate the U.S. Code like a kind of jurisprudential minefield: Crimes like "false statements" (a felony, up to five years), "obstructing the mails" (five years), or "false pretenses on the high seas" (also five years). The trick and the skill lay in finding the more obscure offenses that fit the character of the celebrity and carried the toughest sentences. The, result, however, was inevitable: "prison time."

Slate has a feature up on laws that are nearly always broken. So far: "Drug legalization" may not be going well on some fronts, but consider the wide availability pf psychoactive substances these days. And porn across state lines is A-OK with Uncle Sam.

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  1. If prosecutors really have nothing better to do, is there a way we can show them the door?

  2. Good for them, let’s get everyone that has broken some law into prison where they belong.

  3. We should try this with H&R commentors.

    Warren must have violated some campaign finance law with all his shilling for Ron Paul by now.

    Viking Moose has probably trespassed on federal lands and grazed on some protected grasslands.

    Surely Pro Libertate is practicing law without a license.

    Mr Steven Crane likes to take upskirt photos at Pride parades and sell them to priests.

    This is like fish in a barrel.

  4. Dag, highnumber.

    If we follow that plan through, who’s going to take care of Monkey Tuesdays and Star Trek Fridays?

  5. No, I have a license to practice law. What I lack is a license to practice medicine.

  6. Yeah, right, ProGLib. BTW, thanks for the tummy tuck over the weekend.

    Pi Guy,
    What do you know about Star Trek? Do you think you can handle Fridays?

  7. I lack a license to kill, but that hasn’t stopped me.

  8. Doesn’t every profession do this or is it just law and military?

    In military aviation those of us from all services chat about obscure aircraft parts or odd FAA regulations, even odd military regulations.

    Outside of aviation we have little trivia chats too. I usually stick to disproving common “podium instructor” myths that so many have heard, but few look up: sunburn is NOT punishable under “destruction of military property”, it is, however, punishable if the soldier fails to perform duty because of it. Could be a “failure to repair” charge, which is funny law wording for someone being late.

    You know, suff like that.

  9. highnumber

    Can I be a foreign agitator?

    Seriously, however, I bet every person in the world could be prosecuted under some statute on the books. (Like those “late autumn” yellow lights I went through on the weekend.)

  10. I am stunned that government employees would “sit around” at work and play games. They are always trying to convince their private sector counterparts that they are so overworked and underpaid.

  11. What do you know about Star Trek?

    Are you really sure you want to open this can of worms?

  12. Otter: Take it easy, I’m pre-law.
    Boon: I thought you were pre-med.
    Otter: What’s the difference?

    It’s Sulu/Wayne Friday, as highnumber well knows. It’s only Star Trek Wednesday when VM or I want to avenge ourselves on highnumber for some perceived slight. Really, Urkobold has been degraded to some sort of geeky, new-wave soap opera.

  13. I think these laws are kept on the books for a darker purpose. If a prosecutor wants to coerce a person to behave in a certain way these laws are just the thing for it.

    Wasn’t it Cuffy Meigs in Atlas Shrugged who had that great answer when Rearden asked him how did they expect people to live when they were forced to break a myriad of laws? I think he said something to the effect that the innocent cannot be controlled, but llawbreakers can be controlled since they have the threat of prosecution hanging over their heads. And so, if there aren’t enough lawbreakers, the government produces them.

  14. I found their argument about the drug laws pretty compelling. That is, pharmaceutical companies have come up with a number of legal substitutes for illegal drugs (similar in kind if not in degree). And “rich people tend to abuse prescription drugs, while poorer Americans tend to self-medicate with old-fashioned illegal drugs or just get drunk.”

  15. Doesn’t every profession do this or is it just law and military?

    When I was a city planner, my boss and I once spent a lunch break creating a 1000-year-plan for the city.

    Lots of warehouses around the moon elevator.

  16. The Extispicator | October 15, 2007, 3:54pm | #

    I am stunned that government employees would “sit around” at work and play games.

    Yeah. Not like H&R posters who sit around at work and…

  17. joe,

    Moon elevator? Were you actually planning to tether the Moon to the Earth? What materials were you going to use? Were flying cars contemplated?

  18. Knowing that there is currently a man rotting in Federal Prison under an 8 year sentence for the heinous crime of importing lobsters in opaque bags rather than brow paper bags, I find the tone of the article a little hard to swallow. We do have silly, vague, and overbroad laws on the books, and prosecutors use them every day to screw innocent people over.

  19. Planners plan, Pro Lib.

    If you want to talk about such things, you’ll have to talk to an engineer, or a builder.

  20. When I was a city planner, my boss and I once spent a lunch break creating a 1000-year-plan for the city.

    Lots of warehouses around the moon elevator.

    What version of SimCity was that? Mo wants!

  21. Doesn’t every profession do this or is it just law and military?

    Yes, every profession does this. But not every profession has the power to destroy a person’s life on a whim. As long as we have a legal system where it is impossible for the layman to know the law, then I want to keep lawyers unskilled and ignorant. I don’t want lawyers to have the ability to blackmail anyone at anytime.

  22. …the Slate article makes exactly the wrong conclusion about subjective law-enforcement.

    The problem is not that the ‘quantity’ of laws forces noble/honest/diligent government bureaucrat-prosecutors to reluctantly make practical choices — but rather that the vast quantity of arbitrary & vague laws prompts power-hungry prosecutors & politicians to exert tyrannical control over the citizenry.

    That is the deliberate purpose of a legal system with a million laws & regulations.

    The corrupted rule-of-law is now merely a power game.

  23. FD&S,

    there is currently a man rotting in Federal Prison under an 8 year sentence for the heinous crime of importing lobsters in opaque bags rather than brow paper bags,

    Care to elaborate?? Something sounds fishy about this, but if it’s true, the guy in question must be really steamed. Hopefully he’s got a tough shell.

  24. joe,

    I was under the impression that a space elevator would have to be located on the equator. Of course, if nobody mentioned that to state or federal officials, they might build it anyway. I’d be sure to plan in advance on those vacant warehouses being transformed into yuppie lofts.

  25. Good, anonymous coward!

    I’ll write that on the big pad of paper, right beneath “good roads.”

    Anyone else?

  26. Ah, so planners are about as useful as lawyers. Note to self: Tell earlier self to major in engineering during next time traveling jaunt.

  27. Antidepressants and anxiety treatments aren’t cheap: A fancy drug like Wellbutrin can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $2,400 a year. These drugs also require access to a sympathetic doctor who will issue a prescription. That’s why, generally speaking, the new legalization program is for better-off Americans. As the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University reports, rich people tend to abuse prescription drugs, while poorer Americans tend to self-medicate with old-fashioned illegal drugs or just get drunk.

    Prohibitonists, think about that. If you’re poor and use psychoactive substances, you’re a criminal. If you’re wealthy, society has developed an out for you! Is this a great country, or what?

    Great stuff, there.

  28. Pro Libertate | October 15, 2007, 5:12pm | #

    Ah, so planners are about as useful as lawyers.

    Not quite. At least I can use my lawyer to fight off your lawyer. Two planners OTOH will simply team up to make an even bigger plan. eg: An Elevator to the Sun. (Go at night, when it’s cooler.)

    Favorite bumper sticker:

    My Lawyer can beat up Your Lawyer

  29. Aresen,

    So I could use my lawyering abilities for good, is that what you are telling me?

    Okay, then. I’m going to file a claim against Bill Gates for not using his fortune to build a space elevator. And a base on Titan (why start small?).

  30. Regis,

    The guy’s name is David McNab, and the details of the case are pretty outrageous:

    http://overcriminalized.com/studies/case_lobster.cfm

  31. This little game doesn’t necessarily mean the prosecutors are crooked (though some are), but that they recognize there are a lot of stupid, unenforced laws out there.

    “Dead” laws benefit pretty much everyone– we can smoke pot in Seattle, the government can act like it cares, the legislature doesn’t scare the poor ol’ religious folk who don’t wanna see that marywanna legalized. The best thing, of course, would be to repeal these laws, but since that’ll never happen, unenforcement is the next best thing.

  32. So we finally have the truth about Mother Theresa: public enemy number one.

  33. A) Mother Theresa should have been jailed for being a old, crusty bitch.
    B) John Lennon was a fuckin’ commie.
    C) I have a friend who regularly travels to Idaho, where he buys me cartons of smokes that don’t have Montana’s egregious taxes. So, is that like, against the law and shit?

  34. Do we stick Arensen’s bumper-sticker-sporter with menacing, solicitation to conspiracy, creating a road hazard, and what must be a host of sanctions against intimidating court officers (not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course)?

  35. What about “corrupting the youth?”

    In military aviation those of us from all services chat about obscure aircraft parts or odd FAA regulations, even odd military regulations.

    One time we told one of our lieutenants we needed an officer to observe the operational checkout of the self-destruct button, because of AMC/FAA regulations. He bought it and shit bricks for a couple of hours. That really doesn’t have anything to do with what you said, I know, but hey, military humor.

  36. “Dead” laws are dangerous. They make everybody a criminal, and allow the state to use its coercive power to tell us to do whatever they want, whenever they want. The heart of the McNabb case apparently centered on the fact that people in the EPA and Fisheries Bureau didn’t like his fishing practices. They had a problem though, because his practices were perfectly legal under the law. But still, by conducting his perfectly legal fishing practices, this guy was openly flaunting the will of US Government Bureaucrats, and that just can’t stand. So they nailed him on a violation of an unrelated non-law and put him in a cage for 8 years. That will show him. And that will show everybody else. So long as dead laws exist, we are nothing but slaves. Until a few months ago, the Federal Dogfighting statute could have been classified as “dead law”. Funny thing about dead laws- they only stay dead until they suit the needs of a particular Federal prosecutor.

  37. Pro Libertate | October 15, 2007, 5:12pm | #

    Ah, so planners are about as useful as lawyers. Note to self: Tell earlier self to major in engineering during next time traveling jaunt.

    Replay reference?

  38. An ex-cop acquaintence once explained to me how the police can always find a reason to pull you over if they want: they just follow you around for about fifteen minutes and wait for you to do something illegal. It is physically impossible to be on the road for that long without committing some kind of infraction. Cuffy Meigs indeed…

  39. We should try this with H&R commentors.

    highnumber could probably be convicted of assaulting some rockers …

  40. “I think these laws are kept on the books for a darker purpose. If a prosecutor wants to coerce a person to behave in a certain way these laws are just the thing for it.

    Wasn’t it Cuffy Meigs in Atlas Shrugged…”

    Nope; it was Dr. Floyd Ferris. (p. 436, pagination depending on edition)

    “…who had that great answer when Rearden asked him how did they expect people to live when they were forced to break a myriad of laws? I think he said something to the effect that the innocent cannot be controlled, but lawbreakers can be controlled since they have the threat of prosecution hanging over their heads. And so, if there aren’t enough lawbreakers, the government produces them.”

    Yup.

    “Wherever the law is, crime can be found.”

    (Solzhenitsyn: “Gulag“, Vol. I, p. 67)

  41. Yes, wealthier people have access to prescription drugs that can be fun to abuse, like Ativan and Klonopin. But anti-depressants? Where did someone get the idea that anti-depressants are being abused? All it would get you is increased side effects and most of those are not pleasant.

  42. highnumber could probably be convicted of assaulting some rockers …

    We are the MODS
    We are the MODS
    We are, we are, we are the MODS!

  43. Isn’t it “illegal” to enforce these obscure laws? Something about unequal enforcement or some such, i.e. if they trot out a 50 year old law against shaving yourself, won’t a judge toss out the charge because nobody else has been charged, hence this is “unequal treatment under the law”?

  44. Junior and senior prosecutors would sit around, and someone would name a random celebrity-say, Mother Theresa or John Lennon.

    I don’t know what kind of pharmaceuticals Mother Theresa dispensed at those hospices of hers, but John Lennon’s consumption of illegal drugs was pretty well known. The feds wouldn’t have had to stretch to find some obscure crime to pin on him. J. Edgar Hoover wanted to have him deported because of his marijuana conviction in England, but fortunately he wasn’t in charge of the INS. But if Mister Hoover had been in charge of the DEA instead of the FBI, it shouldn’t have been too hard for him to get some informer to provide “probable cause” (maybe by lying–it would all be in a good cause, after all), raid his apartment, find a roach in the ashtray, and send him off to Club Fed.

  45. Where did someone get the idea that anti-depressants are being abused? All it would get you is increased side effects and most of those are not pleasant.

    It isn’t a question of abuse. In my opinion I don’t abuse pot. I use it to chill out or as a shrink might say, “manage anxiety.” A puff or two daily helps me stay even – much like an antidepressant. The difference (chemically there are many, but the desired outcome is the same) is that my way of managing anxiety is illegal. If I want to chill out legally I need a script for Paxil.

  46. vere this is nie blogs

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