WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court case of a fisherman hooked by a law meant to preserve documents, not fish, is renewing calls to curb the reach of criminal laws that critics say are too vague.
Groups across the political spectrum — from the liberal American Civil Liberties Union to the conservative Heritage Foundation — have long complained about the growing number of vaguely drawn statutes they say give too much leeway to zealous prosecutors.
The issue got a boost Wednesday, when the court handed a victory to a Florida fisherman, Captain John Yates, finding that he'd been wrongly prosecuted for destroying evidence after he dumped some undersized grouper off his boat.
The five justices who ruled in Yates' favor said the law under which he was convicted, a post-Enron statute banning destruction of "any record, document or tangible object" to obstruct a federal investigation, was meant to preserve financial records, not fish.
Even in a sharply written dissent, Justice Elena Kagan complained about "overcriminalization and excessive punishment" in the legal system. The lower courts' hands were tied in the case, she said, because Congress had passed "a bad law," poorly drafted and "with too-high maximum penalties, which give prosecutors too much leverage and sentencers too much discretion."
"I think it is a great victory for the people who are concerned about overcriminalization," said Paul Larkin, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. "You essentially had all nine justices explicitly or implicitly say this was a big problem."
Larkin pointed out similarities between the Yates case and a decision last year in which the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the government could not convict a Pennsylvania woman under an anti-terrorism law for spreading potentially deadly chemicals on the car and mailbox of her husband's mistress.
There are more than 3,000 federal criminal laws on the books, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys estimates there are more than 300,000 federal regulations that can trigger criminal sanctions. Many of these regulatory crimes, critics say, are so-called strict liability offenses that require no proof that a person intended to commit a crime.
Liberal groups like the ACLU have complained for years about laws that impose draconian prison sentences for seemingly low-level crimes, leading to the incarceration of millions for non-violent offenses. The critique from business and conservative groups has often focused more on the idea of limited government and less regulation.
At least three former attorneys general from Republican administrations, including Edwin Meese, Richard Thornburgh and Michael Mukasey, have spoken out against the sheer number and vagueness of criminal laws.
Critics often cite the 1996 case of car racing legend Bobby Unser, who faced a $5,000 fine and up to six months in prison for accidentally driving his snowmobile into a national forest during a blizzard. Unser later testified before a congressional committee as an advocate of overcriminalization reform.
More recently, federal agents raided the offices of Gibson Guitar Corp. in 2011 after seizing what they deemed illegal ebony shipped to the guitar maker from India. Nashville-based Gibson agreed to pay a $300,000 penalty, but not before the company and some lawmakers denounced the raids as overzealous federal regulation that threatened American jobs.
"It's simply too tempting for Congress to just toss out these laws either in somewhat impulsive reaction to crises or basically as a matter of political posturing," said Robert Weisberg, a professor at Stanford Law School who filed a friend of the court brief in the fisherman's case. "The story is really about prosecutors taking advantage of these things."
Weisberg said the Supreme Court's decision this week could encourage some lower court judges to read criminal laws more narrowly. But he said he doubts Congress will take action anytime soon.
Members of the House Judiciary Committee created a task force in 2013 to propose criminal justice reforms and identify unnecessary and ineffective laws for elimination. While the task force held several hearings, it issued no report or recommendations.