Five Gulf Coast states have over 1,000 laws that allow prosecutors to target people with criminal sanctions over rather minor infractions related to the environment and outdoor living, a new study shows, even in cases where the accused did not cause any harm or knowingly break the law.
“The labyrinth of vague offenses fails to put individuals and businesses on notice as to what conduct is prohibited, leaving those in such industries with the unenviable choice of curtailing productive, job-creating economic activity or taking a risk of being branded a criminal,” Texas Public Policy Foundation analyst Vikrant Redd said in a statement on his organization’s report.
The report indicates that this opaque process tends to empower bureaucrats, with many “offenses created by rulemaking pursuant to blanket statutes that permit agencies to effectively create crimes,” in addition to criminal regulations pertaining to hunting, fishing, or agriculture.
Texans can commit up to 11 felonies related to harvesting oysters, according to TPPF. In Louisiana, Burt Rico learned that the state Fish and Wildlife Service would crack down on him for hunting over a deer feeder that had lights.
“Agents cited him for hunting without a basic and big game hunting license, failure to wear hunter orange, and hunting deer with illegal methods and during illegal hours with an artificial light,” TPPF recalled. “Rico pleaded no contest to hunting deer illegally at night with a .22 caliber rifle, and in addition to a fine of $1,051, he was sentenced to sixty days in the Avoyelles Parish Jail.”
Other minor offenses can have even stiffer penalties. “In Alabama, disposing of scrap tires in an “unauthorized” manner is a felony, punishable by up to ten years in prison, even if no one is harmed,” the report notes.
Florida and Alabama have a combined 84 “strict liability crimes” — crimes for which the accused is liable even if there was no criminal intent, which is an especially daunting prospect in Florida because felonies come with mandatory sentencing guidelines that prevent judges from issuing more restrained sentences.
The three strikes laws on the books in these states raise the possibility that such minor charges could lead to mandatory sentences vastly disproportionate to the crime. Under Texas law, for instance, the third felony conviction triggers a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life in prison. Per this report, such a sentence could conceivably be triggered by illegal oyster harvesting.
“Although this report focuses primarily on the economic ramifications of overcriminalization, the most important reason for reform is simply that overcriminalization is a failure of the government’s responsibility to secure liberty,” Marc Levin, director of TPPF’s Center for Effective Justice, said in a statement. “Rather than allowing individuals and business owners along the Gulf Coast to maximize their liberty and opportunity up to the point that they do not harm others, our laws far too often create confusion and injustice by reaching far beyond the goal of punishing those who engage in blameworthy conduct that causes real harm.”