Criminal Justice

Government Should Repeal Out of Date Laws

"People commit crimes all the time without knowing it. It's impossible to know what sort of behavior is criminal."


A law in South Carolina bans playing pinball if you're under 18. That's just one of America's many ridiculous laws restricting freedom.

"There is a role for the government in keeping people safe from actual criminals, people who commit murder, robbery," says Rafael Mangual, a "tough-on-crime" guy at the Manhattan Institute.

"But a lot of laws don't keep people safe," he says. "There's a federal prohibition on walking a dog on a leash longer than six feet on federal property. It is a jailable offense."

Three hundred thousand federal criminal offenses are on the books. "It's way too big," says Mangual. "Part of that is because we don't take any old or outmoded laws off the books."

In Michigan, prosecutors filed criminal charges against a 10-year-old who, during a dodgeball game, threw a ball at another kid's face.

"Anyone can be prosecuted for almost anything," says Mangual. "Lying to your boss over the phone about why you didn't come in. That could constitute wire fraud."

Today's laws punish activities unlikely to be performed with criminal intent.

"Taking a rake from New York into New Jersey, that's actually a federal crime," warns Mangual. "If you've ever had a rake in the back of your pickup truck and crossed state lines, you probably committed a federal crime."

In my new video, I push back at Mangual, pointing out that nobody goes to jail for things like that.

"That doesn't mean that it's not a problem," he responds. "Legal compliance is not free. It takes time, money, effort. It violates fundamental norms about fairness."

One woman was prosecuted for sheltering animals during a hurricane. "My goal was to make sure that they were not out there drowning," she said. But North Carolina prosecutors filed criminal charges against her for practicing veterinary medicine without a license.

In Kentucky, Holland Kendall gave eyeglasses to needy people who couldn't afford eye doctors. Then state officials told him that was a crime.

What causes this excess? I was taught that the Constitution created checks and balances that make it difficult for any bill to become a law.

"Everyone has this idea from 'Schoolhouse Rock'," says Mangual, "that a law gets made in a particular way (but) that's not how it works in practice. At the federal level, 98 percent of criminal laws are not passed by elected representatives. They are created by unelected bureaucrats who don't have to answer to anyone."

Established businesses manipulate those bureaucrats into passing rules that squash new competition.

"They can afford the lobbyists. They can afford to comply with the crazy webs of regulations," explains Mangual. "If you've got an established cookie business, you don't want a grandma from down the street who has a better recipe cutting into your business… You go to the legislature and ask them to pass arduous rules about an industrial kitchen and expensive equipment that you that need in order to qualify to participate in this business."

One woman was prosecuted in a sting operation for selling ceviche on Facebook.

In Denver, a bartender mixed vodka with things like pickles and bacon and then put the mix back in the bottle. Some customers liked that. But authorities jailed the bartender for "infusing vodka."

I wish I could jail that prosecutor.

Mangual warns: "People commit crimes all the time without knowing it. It's impossible to know what sort of behavior is criminal."

Law should stick to punishing assault, theft, and fraud. Otherwise, leave us all alone.

A recent Manhattan Institute report makes suggestions for getting closer to that ideal.

The absence of criminal intent should be taken more seriously by legislators. With hundreds of thousands of criminal offenses on the books, the old adage that "ignorance of the law is no excuse" no longer makes sense.

Lawmakers should also consider listing crimes in one place instead of sprinkling them throughout the statutory codes, which would take a lifetime to read.

And government should regularly repeal laws we no longer need.


NEXT: Good and Bad Reasons for Acquitting Trump

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  1. Great blog very informative, well done. Homelegance Bedroom Set

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  3. Sunset provisions and a ban on omnibus bills to prevent blanket renewals. All bills get periodically reviewed and renewed or they expire. Contractual language in the bill spelling out what problem it’s addressing, what it’s going to accomplish, what it’s going to cost to implement. Hard targets only – if it fails to reach its goals, it’s marked as a failed law and it’s ineligible for renewal. None of this vague language that allows them to claim that they didn’t fix the problem but the program is a success because the problem is getting worse at a slower rate and it only cost twice as much as it was supposed to. You wouldn’t take that kind of shit from a plumber or an auto mechanic or anybody else would you? And no laws with cutsie acronyms! We’re adults here, not fifth grade girls dotting our i’s with little hearts on our little mash notes. Have some dignity for God’s sake.

    1. +10000

        1. It is not always difficult to know when behavior is criminal. It is quite easy, for example, to determine when “parody” crosses the line into rank criminality. While it might be possible to repeal some laws without endangering the public, we should strengthen our existing penalties to make sure that perpetrators are never granted any sort of impunity for criminal “satire.” There is ample precedent to build on, thanks in large part to our bold and determined efforts at NYU. See the documentation at:

  4. Wholeheartedly agree. Repeal the 15th Amendment.

    1. And the 19th!

      1. 16 and 17 too.

  5. How many times have you heard the line “If you don’t like it, vote for someone who will change it”?

    We know that line is bull, because nobody will change it. If you’re lucky you might get something amended, but repealed? That just isn’t done.

    I wonder how much of it is professional courtesy. If the current legislature starts repealing legislation then future legislatures might repeal laws passed by the current legislature! Can’t have that! That legislation was a lot of work! It is backed up with good intentions! Why do you hate the children!?!?

  6. While it is true most laws (actually regulations) are created by “unelected bureaucrats” the fact is the bureaucracy has delegated authority from other elected bodies. The elected officials pass the broad law that sets a goal as food safety and delegate accomplishing that to the Departments of Health and of Agriculture. Also business group have greater influence because they care about the regulation. When they have a public hearing on a new food regulation representatives of the food and restaurant industry will be present while few in the general public care.

    1. When they have a public hearing on a new food regulation representatives of the food and restaurant industry will be present while few in the general public care.

      The benefits are focused and the costs are diffuse.

  7. This country really does need such a sweeping change that it will be earth shattering.

    We need a return to the true principles the nation was founded on. Can you imagine living in a world with the amount of freedom an American had in saaay 1900? Or 1850? It would be like heaven! The explosion of prosperity would be INSANE.

    There are a few reasonable laws we’ve tacked on since the olden days, but 98% of them are useless.

    After we get rid of the dumb laws, I propose that we pass a ban on banning things!

    1. +10000

    2. Can you imagine living in a world with the amount of freedom an American had in saaay 1900?

      During Jim Crow?

      Or 1850?

      During slavery?

      No thanks.

      1. I’m pretty sure vek meant economic freedom. I’m also pretty sure you knew this.

      2. And women couldn’t vote.

        OTOH it was pretty much open borders.

        1. Since women have had the vote, they have always favored the more left leaning candidate in any national election.

        2. I don’t believe in universal suffrage, which is as the founders believed. Women on average are destroyers of freedom… But I think if we had an objective test, say history and civics, that was relatively challenging, whatever women and men that passed and earned their right to vote would be alright for freedom. That’s my PC way to counter the problem of womens voting patterns… And the voting patterns of uneducated morons of all colors and sexes.

      3. Note the 2% of laws we should keep fuckwit.

        And I’m not just talking about economic freedom, which would be huge. Personal freedom too. Not having the government arbitrarily demand $50K in permit fees if you want to build a mother in law suite in your back yard, letting people smoke weed or do a little blow if they fancy, better gun rights, freedom of association, freedom from nanny state crap of all sorts.

        America in that era was truly the freest that any people have ever been on this earth.

  8. Look on the bright side: if they actually started enforcing these things on everyone, criminal background checks would become almost meaningless. So what if you’ve been charged with a crime or arrested when it happens to everyone?

    1. Just the opposite would happen, I’m afraid.

      1. ^ this

        You get pulled over and they cite you for having a joint here not much happens but good luck when you apply for your next job. Even the entry level jobs.

        Most local courts will erase the record fortunately also the city announced a policy that they will not enforce possession. So the legal system is actually bucking the law. Still it is roulette if you get pulled over.

  9. good luck with that. This is the permanent omni-state and it’s never going to change.

  10. This is always a dumb argument because laws don’t apply to everyone.

    Do you fly planes?
    Then you don’t have to worry about the many laws concerning flying planes.

    You should know what the laws and rules are for the activity you do (e.g. grow corn, build ships, buy property, etc.), but you don’t have to know or comply with ALL THE LAWS.

    1. Google “three felonies a day.”

    2. Google mens rea. See if you can find its obituary.

    3. What if I fly planes, buy property, and grow corn?

    4. I fly planes. But there aren’t that many laws governing flying planes. Regulations? I have a four-pound book of FAA regulations, written by drunken law clerks (or so it appears.)

  11. Robert Heinlein, in Moon is a Harsh Mistress, suggested two legislatures of direct-elected representatives. One body to create laws, requiring a super majority and one body to abolish laws, requiring only a simple majority. I love the idea of politicians running on the platform to abolish laws.

    1. It really wouldn’t be a bad system honestly.

  12. “Mangual warns: “People commit crimes all the time without knowing it. It’s impossible to know what sort of behavior is criminal.””

    The obvious solution is to become a police officer. They’re excused when they violate laws they’re not aware of all the time.

    1. You’ll only see cops prosecuted if their actions were both unlawful and against department policy.

      1. AND they actually get caught

  13. Ready-for-repeal, outdated laws:

    Hunting on public lands

    Public funding of chaplains

    Tax exemption for entertainments based on superstition

    435-member House of Representatives

    Nine-member Supreme Court

    Rural electrification

    21-year-old drinking age

  14. On similar ground it may be proved that no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, & what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct. They are masters too of their own persons, & consequently may govern them as they please. But persons & property make the sum of the objects of government. The constitution and the laws of their predecessors extinguished then in their natural course, with those who gave them being. This could preserve that being till it ceased to be itself, & no longer. Every constitution then, & every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, & not of right. – Thomas Jefferson

  15. The last sentence is the best:

    “And government should regularly repeal laws we no longer need.”

    We should have the least laws on the books as possible.

    1. That Jefferson quote above also indicates why the hope of ‘repeal’ is in no way a substitute for automatic sunsetting at the outset

      But the power of repeal is not an equivalent. It might be indeed if every form of government were so perfectly contrived that the will of the majority could always be obtained fairly & without impediment. But this is true of no form. The people cannot assemble themselves. Their representation is unequal & vicious. Various checks are opposed to every legislative proposition. Factions get possession of the public councils. Bribery corrupts them. Personal interests lead them astray from the general interests of their constituents: and other impediments arise so as to prove to every practical man that a law of limited duration is much more manageable than one which needs a repeal.

  16. In principle, I’m all for automatic sunset clauses, yet I have to think the idea could be taken too far. Surely there’s no need to review laws against murder, rape, kidnapping, and theft every few years. So where do you draw the line? I suppose you could subject all laws to review but mandate that any law not renewed by unanimous consent immediately expire.

    1. Automatic sunset clauses would be as effective at preventing the accumulation of laws as the two year limit on defense appropriations has been at preventing a standing army.

    2. Would there really be much need to debate laws against murder etc.? Those could easily be re-passed without much fuss, and the little fuss that was made would sop up the time of the various representatives and keep them from working to come up with new and dumber ideas.

      1. Plus – to the degree there is debate, it is likely over something that is current and meaningful – sentencing or evidence or aggravating circumstances or judicial precedent that seems a bit stuck on something or somesuch

    3. But how many laws are there against things that we can all agree are wrong? As the number of laws expand, there’s more likely to be people who don’t agree there should be such a law and respect for the law diminishes. Take smoking pot for example – it’s been illegal for a long time and yet there are tens of millions of people who have ignored those laws because they don’t respect the authority of the law in this area. The more they pass laws that aren’t respected, the less respect there is for the rule of law and since the alternative to rule of law is the law of the jungle you’d better think long and hard before you start trivializing the majesty of the law with petty-ass bullshit laws.

      1. “When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law.” -Bastiat

  17. I’ve always believed the best way to get rid of bad, unpopular and/or outdated laws is to enforce them – vigorously.

  18. One hallmark of a dystopian government is its ability to imprison anyone. Or, as Stalin’s head of secret police put it “Show me the man and I’ll show you the crime.”

    How far are we from that?

    If it’s true that we commit an average of three felonies a day without knowing it, then doesn’t that mean that all our rules need to do is study someone long enough before finding an excuse to imprison them? They can certainly pull you over if they follow you long enough, and they can easily manufacture probable cause to search your car or obtain a warrant to search your home.

    People with power like having a legal landscape that is impossible to navigate. That means they can arbitrarily come down on anyone they want, because everyone is a criminal.

    1. *rulers* not rules

  19. Apparently there is a state law here requiring you to walk on the left side of the road. The busybody HOA president put out a memo about that. This is a quiet little neighborhood with very little traffic and a lot of people walk and walk their dogs.

    I still walk on the right side but I walk backwards when I pass his house.

  20. Perhaps we need a law to rid ourselves of unnecessary laws. For example, law might be required to contain a sunset clause. Perhaps the length of its life might dictate the percentage of House and Senate approval. For example, forever would require 100% approval while 10 years might require 10% over the traditional 51%. When I was tested for my drivers license back in ’54, automobiles were required to have a person walking a short distance ahead waving a day flag or night lantern.

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