Q&A

Meet Mike Chase, the Lawyer Behind @CrimeADay 

|

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.

NEXT: National injunctions and "a spirit of defiance of judicial authority"

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. The Harvey Silverglate book “Three Felonies a Day” covered much of the same ground. And nothing has changed – except to get worse!

  2. In a way we’re still living in the dark ages.

  3. “You can get five years in federal prison for selling llama poop…”

    Interesting to know! I would like to know, how many years in the slammer for blowing on a cheap plastic flute, w/o permission? But I’m not willing to play guinea pig to find out! I can’t do the time, so I won’t do the crime!

    To find precise details on what NOT to do, to avoid the flute police, please see http://www.churchofsqrls.com/DONT_DO_THIS/ … This has been a pubic service, courtesy of the Church of SQRLS!

    1. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

      WHAT A KNEE SLAPPER!

      MIKEY HIHN, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN

  4. A Trump did with the “Repeal 2 EOs for every 1 new EO”, Congress should enact a law that requires repealing 2 old laws for every 1 new law.

    That and 1-2 year Sunset Clauses on every new law.

    Actually, Congress just needs to repeal hundreds of laws each year until we get to the very few that the federal government can operate from in a tiny and limited manner.

  5. My favorite absurd law remains putting certain strains of the fairy shrimp on the endangered species list. How many people realize that the Endangered Species Act protects species with features are too small to be seen by the human eye?

    We need to prove the endangered species of fairy shrimp aren’t there before we grade anything. We hire experts that come in and map all the puddles on the property. I’ve seen them flag puddles on a 20 acre site that are half an inch across and two inches long.

    The biologists need to do a dry season test and a wet season test on each flagged puddle, and that means, if all goes well, verifying that the site is endangered fairy shrimp free takes at least six months. They say, “Time is money”, but on most projects, I’d rather have more time than more money. If it doesn’t rain enough that winter, the wet season test can’t be performed–and then you have to wait another year. You see, you can’t really tell the endangered fairy shrimp from the non-endangered fairy shrimp until you hatch their microscopic eggs and look at what comes out under a microscope.

    Did I mention that this endangered species can only be differentiated from its non-endangered cousins under a microscope?

    Your investment just sits there. You need to pay interest on your land loan. You need to pay property taxes while the land just sits there. You need to insure it against shithead kids riding their motorcycles on it. You need to pay for weed abatement among other things. Meanwhile, there’s this thing called “the time value of money” and you’re losing it with every tick of the clock.

    We once had regulators and biologists all on the same site at the same time, and I actually asked them about why the fairy shrimp was so important. They all agreed that it wasn’t because they’re important to feed migratory birds or anything like that. There are more than enough common fairy shrimp for that. The reason they’re on the endangered species list is just to protect the endangered fairy shrimp themselves. The common, not endangered fairy shrimp are prolific. They’re not endangered at all. But we need to protect the endangered fairy shrimp because if we didn’t, they wouldn’t be here anymore.

    . . . not that anyone without a microscope would notice they were gone.

    In short, our economy has spent billions complying with regulations in order to protect what might as well be a microscopic species, and if you grade over a puddle where these microscopically differentiated fairy shrimp might live without a permit to do so, you are in big fucking trouble with at least two federal agencies–whose field personnel do carry badges and guns in their cars and can and will arrest you.

    1. The snail darter cost millions of dollars initially and trillions of dollars since. The EPA is undoubtedly the biggest racket going, with their funding of friendly lawsuits and their “money is no object” approach to enforcement there’s no telling how much damage they have done to the rule of law. And yet Chevron still sits there and Congress looks the other way as the monsters they created rampage.

    2. Could you water the ground to make sure the wet season is wet enough to test?

      1. No.

        They won’t run the test if there isn’t enough rain that year, and covering the area with water doesn’t change the weather report.

        Also, if you’re washing away an endangered species, that’s against the law, too. The fear isn’t only of prosecution. It’s also that they won’t approve your plans. It’s also that they might hit you for mitigation with a huge penalty.

        If your plan is approved, they might let you mitigate for destroying wetlands (or the specimens within them) by creating new wetland with the endangered species in a better area that isn’t in the middle of industrial project. They MAY MAY MAY let you destroy one acre of wetlands for every four acres you create (or buy four acres from some other site where they want to create more habitat). If you destroy that protected wetlands area, in addition to paying any fines or going to prison, that ratio might go up to 20 acres for every acre you destroyed.

        The site I was talking about was about 20 acres. If I lose four acres on the same site because the puddle in question is in the middle of the site, and i need to move it somewhere else, I still have 16 acres to build on. If I lose all 20 acres, not only do I have a nest of federal, state, county, and city law enforcement agencies to worry about. Now I’ve also screwed over my investors. We can’t even sell the 20 acres on the market at that point.

        All this because of a species that can only be differentiated under a microscope.

        1. They should harvest some of the DNA and store it. Then, who gives a damn if it goes extinct, we can recreate it some day.

          Problem solved.

          1. The idea that there’s a theoretical limit to the costs associated with saving a microscopically differentiated species from extinction, beyond which, the costs are higher than saving the species is worth–we need to get them to accept that idea before we get them to the point where they’re willing to let anything go extinct.

            It’s the same problem I have dealing with people who talk about global warming and the polar bears. I ask them:

            How much do we need to sacrifice before our sacrifices change the climate enough to save the very first polar bear from global warming?

            Or, in other words, how much are willing to spend to save the first polar bear?

            $1 trillion?

            $10 trillion?

            They act like it doesn’t matter how much it costs, not if the alternative is the extinction of the polar bear, but we need to come to terms with how much we’re willing to sacrifice to save the very first polar bear from climate change before we even start talking about the much higher costs of saving the very last of the polar bears from climate change. There must be a cost point beyond which it isn’t worth saving the species–but they don’t want to believe that.

            If I can’t get them to see the light on a species that no one would without a microscope would notice if they’re gone–not even the other animals that feed on them–then how will I ever get them to see the light on something as cute and cuddly as a baby polar bear?

            That’s not a rhetorical question. I have an answer. I try to explain to them that people will never make the sacrifices necessary to save the polar bear if they don’t believe the people want to save them are rational enough to take the costs of doing so into consideration. “No matter the cost” isn’t a rational response–especially when the costs we’re talking about are coming out of the voters’ future paychecks.

            1. Yet Mother Earth gets off scott free when she has snuffed out the lives of millions of species.

        2. “If you destroy that protected wetlands area [without permission from all the relevant agencies], in addition to paying any fines or going to prison, that ratio might go up to 20 acres for every acre you destroyed.”

          —-Ken Shultz

          Fixed!

  6. 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.

    To cheers and applause from every writer currently working for Reason. The ability for federal law enforcement to entrap people in made up process crimes is the only hope left that we have to save our democracy from Drumpf!

    1. 2016 was the first time the USA did not experience a peaceful transfer of power since the founding. The Donkeys did not accept the transfer and have proceeded to conduct war on the lawfully elected Administration. The Civil War has begun; I wonder how soon until violence becomes widespread. Maybe when Trump is re-elected?

      1. This is the last ditch effort to get rid of Trump and it won’t work. Lefties will be mad and angry.

        Then Election 2020 will result in Trump being reelected and Lefties will know, without a doubt, that they will never recover a national political power ever again.

        1. Lefties will know, without a doubt, that they will never recover a national political power ever again.

          Sorry, after Trump the Heffalumps will nominate a milquetoast Romney type and the Donkeys will run the country into the ground again. Luckily the SCOTUS will save us from complete ruin.

          1. I’m not so sure of that. Romney had to run to Utah and have the Mormons protect his political career.

            There are Republicans of varying conservative stripes and then there are Mormons. Mormons tend to be very Socialist where the Church of Latter Day Cultists owns and controls the means of production. Evan McMullin is an example of that. Dude was a CIA officer and rabid Never Trumper.

      2. Seems pretty peaceful to me.

  7. Notice that they only say weather, not climate:

    https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/15/330a

    1. So the “hopes and prayers” thing is not only ineffective in averting natural disasters, it’s also illegal? Do farmers know about praying for rain? Outdoor event planners keeping their fingers crossed? Me washing my car when the lawn looks a little dry? Shyleen down at the titty bar trying to make it rain?

  8. Something something when there aren’t enough criminals something something.

  9. United States – The possession and trade of ambergris is prohibited by the Endangered Species Act of 1973

    Ambergris, lower than whale shit, illegal.

  10. Trump is only up to one High Crime and Misdemeanor a day. Obviously he needs to up his game.

  11. Speaking of politicians and their absurd ways, . . .

    “WASHINGTON—The whistleblower at the center of the impeachment probe of President Trump will testify in the House “very soon,” though in a way that will protect his identity, the Democrat leading the probe said Sunday.

    The whistleblower, whose identity hasn’t been made public, works for the Central Intelligence Agency, The Wall Street Journal confirmed last week.

    “We’ll get the unfiltered testimony of that whistleblower,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.), the House Intelligence Committee chairman, said on ABC’s “This Week.” “We are taking all the precautions” to protect his identity, Mr. Schiff added.”

    https://www.wsj.com/articles/whistleblower-is-expected-to-testify-soon-house-intelligence-committee-chairman-says-11569768797?

    Apparently, we won’t be able to see the whistleblower testify. Apparently, we’ll just have to take the politicians’ word for whatever he says?

    Like I said on Friday, the credibility of the witness doesn’t depend on his identity. It depends on whether what he says is supported by facts and evidence. So far, the argument was that there was a quid pro quo between Trump and the Ukranian president, but the evidence so far has shown the whistleblower to be full of it–so far.

    The transcript of a phone call that a dozen people from various agencies participated in and corroborated is evidence.

    The claims of an unknown person at the CIA making allegations that have been contradicted by such a transcript–now filtered through the hearsay of a committee of partisan politicians may be considered evidence of something, but if there isn’t corroborating evidence of whatever allegations are made behind closed doors, I wouldn’t give it much weight if I were on the jury.

    I’m not sure there’s a legitimate standard of evidence that gives less weight to the allegations of secret agents in the CIA filtered through partisan politicians, but even if there is one, I don’t suppose many judges, of any partisan persuasion, would allow the jury to hear such evidence in a trial–for good reason. Informants in drug cases who’ve been offered immunity in exchange for their testimony may have more credibility than a CIA operative testifying in secret through the lens of partisan politicians. If you’re willing to believe them, I’ve got some waterfront property in Florida I’d like to sell you.

    1. Sixth amendment; In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

      Nothing in there about anonymity at all – – – – – –

      1. Well, it’s an impeachment proceeding. They’re trying to justify overturning the 2016 presidential election rather than trying to throw Trump in jail–and I understand that. Still, if they want to persuade the general public that we shouldn’t riot when they overturn the election, they better have more substantial evidence than the transcript we’ve already seen and the hearsay testimony of an unnamed CIA agent filtered through a partisan congressional committee. If the jury is the American public, the American public probably isn’t about to buy that–no matter how hard the news media sells it, it’s still the hearsay testimony of an unknown CIA agent.

        You certainly don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to think that the testimony of an unknown CIA agent filtered through a partisan congressional committee maybe shouldn’t be taken at face value.

        1. So far any of the actions taken were not bad, illegal, or anything contrary to what I want President Trump to do.

          To me it does not matter if a CIA agent or the entire House testifies that Trump bad, if they don’t have some allegation of illegal or unconstitutional act by Trump this is another attempted coup.

          While Congress does have a Constitutional power to impeach Presidents, they need a reason that satisfies Article II, Section 4: The President, Vice President and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.

          While Congress can decide what high crimes and misdemeanors means exactly, “high crimes and misdemeanors” involve some violation of laws or rules. Simply saying Orange Man bad is not good enough.

      2. The Chief Justice of the SCOTUS presides over all impeachment trials of Presidents.

        This would allow Roberts to outline certain rules for that proceeding along with the Senate. Technically, Congress can impeach Roberts if they don’t like how he presides over the impeachment trial.

        Pelosi knows that the House loses all control over an impeachment proceeding once they pass articles of impeachment on to the Senate.

        You can already get a sense of the desperation by Democrat leadership. They want fund raising from this while knowing that Trump will never be removed from office. They also know that this will backfire, it’s just a matter of how it will backfire.

        1. Pelosi says impeachment inquiry is worth losing the House in 2020

          Pelosi also knows that the Democrats are finished and will lose the House in 2020 and/or after Census 2020.

          Democrat leadership is very aware of how many people are leaving the Party of slavery and they must know that the illegal immigration ploy to get votes failed and they cannot stop Trump rolling back government for the next 5.5 years.

    2. My best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend heard from this guy who knows this kid who’s going with the girl who knows the CIA agent. And she says he’s a big poopyhead.

      So there’s that.

      1. When you registered as “I’m Not Sure” at Reason.com, I sure hope that you gave them a fakey or very-hard-to-trace email address! Otherwise, with juicy info as you are offering up, Reason.com may very well find themselves subpoenaed for your ID, and you may be summoned and forced to testify! Beware! I also hope you are strong enough to resist torture!

  12. Trump is only up to one High Crime and Misdemeanor a day. Obviously he needs to up his game.
    درمان اضطراب بدون دارو

    1. True. He’s not as competent at HC&M as the last guy.

  13. I am wondering why the comments are not really referring to the post content itself.

    MyApt.Review

    1. Most of the commenters are GOP retirees here to sabotage the LP. Since the topic is idiotic laws the Kleptocracy has passed, their best option is to change the subject and try to pick a pissing match with someone as a diversion–kind of like spraying chaff to block enemy radar.

      1. The Libertarian Party does plenty enough to sabotage itself.

      2. Hank ignores how reason is full of socks and sock trolls to boost web traffic.

        …but non-Lefties are the porblem.

  14. Ever notice how it goes without saying that nobody cares of a federal agent lies to you? Yet if anyone being forced to take an oath to “tell the whole truth so help me Ghawd” were to offer to tell “as much truth as I expect from the government,” you could safely lay odds there’d be a scolding and contempt citation.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.