You can get five years in federal prison for selling llama poop, according to Title 7 of the United States Code, Section 8313(a)(1)(B).
Title 21, Part 139 of the Code of Federal Regulations prohibits the sale of spaghetti noodles that are improperly shaped. The Swine Health Protection Act forbids feeding a pig garbage that hasn't been cooked by a garbage cooker (requiring a garbage-cooking permit, naturally).
Criminal defense attorney Mike Chase, the man behind the popular @CrimeADay Twitter feed, has a new book out titled How to Become a Federal Criminal: An Illustrated Handbook for the Aspiring Offender (Atria Books). It chronicles government power at its most arbitrary and absurd. In late May, Reason's Todd Krainin sat down with Chase to learn the roots of his obsession with stupid laws.
Q: Why should we take your opinion seriously about these crazy laws?
A: I don't know if anybody should take my opinion seriously about this, but I will tell you that by day I'm a white-collar criminal defense lawyer. I'll defend anybody for anything. By night, I spend a lot of time trying to count the number of crimes, because the Department of Justice said that they couldn't do it. They tried to count them all in the 1980s and quit. So I said, 'Look, if I do one federal crime a day, I only need 800 years to finish the job, and then I'll be able to say that I counted them all.' So that's what I've been doing.
Q: This book is a book of humor and not serious legal advice, right?
A: The truth is that if somebody comes to me and says, "Is it illegal to do x?," whatever the blank is filled with, the answer is, "I don't know." I can't sign a piece of paper that says, "Hey, it's totally legal to do any particular thing," because you can't read all the laws.
I haven't gotten through all of them yet, even though I've been doing it for five years. I think people who read the book should know it's a work of humor. Don't do anything in the book. You're probably not going to get charged for selling, you know, runny ketchup. But you could. The specter of criminal liability hangs over all of us all the time.
Q: Are people even charged with these crimes?
A: It depends on which crimes you're talking about. We expect prosecutors to exercise something called "prosecutorial discretion." What that ends up meaning is that they charge mostly gun crimes, drug crimes, immigration crimes, and fraud crimes. That's overwhelmingly their focus. But 1.5 to 2 percent of the federal docket is the administrative crimes and regulatory violations that I write about. That's still thousands of people each year. Thousands of lives. People who have to get a lawyer, go to court, potentially appeal after a conviction, maybe try to go to the Supreme Court to find out if the law they didn't know they were violating is even constitutional. So yeah, people are charged with these silly laws.
Q: Is it like if a federal prosecutor wants to throw the book at you, they will add these charges on?
A: If a federal prosecutor wants to throw the book at you, it's my book that they throw. But yes, there's a coercive element to prosecuting people. We hear talk about obstruction of justice and lying to federal agents. The truth is that if they can't get you on a substantive crime that everybody agrees is morally reprehensible, they can often get you on lying to the feds, because they decide whether you were being truthful or not.
Q: Why did you dedicate this book to the U.S. Congress?
A: Like any great comedian, I have ghostwriters, and Congress is my ghostwriter. I couldn't have done the book without them.
Q: What can be done?
A: Congress can go through and look at the statutes that I cite in the book that give away this blanket criminal enforcement power to the executive branch agencies. Because, remember, the reason that there are 300,000 federal crimes is not because of criminal statutes. There's maybe a couple of thousand federal criminal statutes. But in each of those laws, they give this blanket authority to regulators to make new crimes without Congress doing anything. That has to change.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. For a video version, visit reason.com.