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Are there too many criminal statutes?

There is a very good chance just about every person reading this blog post has committed some type of federal crime or violated a regulation recently. This is largely due to the fact that there are thousands of federal laws and regulations in place, many of which are very obscure or so seemingly minor that it is difficult to avoid them.

Of course people should generally understand that there are a great many things that are obviously against the law. We know that we can face sentencing for hurting someone, lying on tax returns, hacking into computers or stealing. However, as a recent article in The Washington Post notes, the fact that there are an estimated 4,500 criminal statutes that can come with federal penalties has led many people to wonder if there are simply too many laws.

Many people would say yes, we are in an environment of over-criminalization. There seems to be a federal statute or law for any act that can be considered even remotely wrongful. These statutes are also changing so often and they are added so frequently that it is arguably no longer possible for a reasonable person to determine the line between right and wrong; the line between what is against the law and what is not.

Of course, there are critics of this stance who would likely counter that putting these laws and regulations into place is necessary to hold people accountable for any wrongdoing. They might say that expansion of these laws is unavoidable as people keep finding loopholes that let them commit a violation and get away with it or find new ways to commit the same criminal acts.

The crux of this matter is that ignorance of the law is generally not a defense; people are supposed to "have knowledge of the law," according to the author of the aforementioned article. But is this even possible anymore with so many laws in place? Can any average person realistically have an understanding of all the laws, especially as they continue to expand and become more complex?

What do you think? Are we facing an environment of over-criminalization? Is it too easy to charge -- and then aggressively prosecute -- someone of a federal offense?

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Joseph S. Friedberg Chartered

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