Do you know how many federal crimes are on the books? Neither do we. In fact, nobody does.
In 1982, a group of Justice Department attorneys attempted to find out. After two years of reading countless federal statutes and regulations, the lawyers were only able to come up with an estimate: approximately 3,000 acts could be charged as crimes by the federal government.
That was one of many failed efforts to determine just how many federal crimes exist. Yet even though no one knows about every federal offense, ignorance of the law is still considered no defense.
A commentator recently found some of the more surprising federal offenses, such as:
- Taking a sick day when you’re not actually sick
- Getting lost in the woods and needing rescue
- Selling “turkey ham” as “ham turkey”
- Handling a crate of imported primates without wearing waterproof shoes
- Making loud and unusual noises at a post office
- Obstructing or impeding, corruptly or by force or threat of force, the due administration of taxes
Some of these offenses would be better handled as administrative rule violations. Others are simply overreach. This is part of what people mean when they point to overcriminalization in the U.S.
The reality is, there are so many federal crimes — many quite vaguely defined — that any one of us might unwittingly break one. If the federal government had a problem with you, it might relatively easily find a crime to charge you with.
That’s dangerous. Not only does this overcriminalization put innocent people at risk of breaking the law without knowing it, but it allows the government to pick and choose who to charge. Even if law enforcement and prosecutors act in good faith, studies have repeatedly shown that they are likely to investigate, charge and prosecute people of color and other marginalized groups at higher rates.
Many of these crimes are felonies, and that means the defendant has everything to lose. Felons can’t vote, bear arms or serve on most juries. They are restricted from certain jobs, excluded from housing opportunities and can be prohibited from travel. They often lose their parental rights.
Many people convicted of federal felonies are no worse than you or me
You may think that people convicted of felonies deserve everything that happens to them., But there are simply too many federal crimes on the books, and too many criminalize behavior that most people wouldn’t expect to be illegal. Others are so vague that you can’t tell in advance whether you’re doing something illegal. And, the enormous number of federal criminal laws allows law enforcement to target unpopular people and groups.