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Harris Sherline: Too Many Laws Breed Contempt
In a recent column titled “Too Many Crimes — A Function of Too Many Laws,” former U.S. Attorney General Edwin W. Meese III makes the case that “America is in the throes of over-criminalization.”
He supports his assertion by citing a number of cases that are noted in a new book, One Nation Under Arrest:
» A 12-year-old girl arrested and handcuffed for eating a single french fry on the Washington subway system.
» A cancer-ridden grandmother arrested and criminally charged for refusing to trim her hedges the way officials in Palo Alto mandated.
» A 67-year-old retired husband and grandfather imprisoned because some of the paperwork for his home-based orchid business did not satisfy an international treaty.
One of the major problems in America today is that there are too many laws and too much regulation. There is a seemingly endless number of examples of legislators who either have no sense or somehow lose it in the exalted halls of government. For instance, Kentucky law mandates that people must bathe once a year.
Not to pick on Kentucky, but like most states, it has a number of crazy laws. Throwing eggs at a public speaker is punishable by up to one year in jail. It’s illegal to dye or color a baby chick, duckling or rabbit unless six or more are for sale at the same time. If a horse dies in front of a residence, the owner (of the horse, that is) must remove the dead animal within 12 hours. If it’s not done, then it becomes the homeowner’s responsibility. That may have made sense in the 1800s, but it hardly seems necessary today. One city had an ordinance that required the sheriff to shoot dogs whose owners did not pay a local tax on their animals.
Consider the number of jurisdictions with boards, councils or commissions that legislate and the number of laws they adopt annually. There are more than 3,000 counties in the United States, ranging in size from 41.6 square miles (Arlington, Va.) to 141,398 square miles (North Slope Borough of Alaska), along with nearly 19,500 municipalities — in addition to the 50 states. That adds up to about 22,500 entities besides the federal government, all putting laws on the books, presumably to correct problems or to influence or regulate behavior. In California, the legislature adds upward of 5,000 laws to the state’s code books every year. As Will Rogers said, “Congress met. I was afraid they would.”
Obviously, a certain amount of this is necessary, such as local ordinances for such purposes as regulating traffic, land use or taxation. Or, advances in technology bring new problems and with them the need for new laws. The rapid development of computers and the Internet have created new opportunities for mischief, such as Internet fraud and identity theft. And biotechnology is presenting society with moral and ethical challenges that never would have occurred to earlier generations.
However, people’s wants are insatiable, and legislators respond to special-interest groups that want to impose their particular need or desire on the rest of society, which results in thousands of new laws and regulations. It’s worth noting that America has more lawyers than the rest of the world combined, and our society is suffering the consequences.
For example, we can be prosecuted for breaking laws we don’t even know exist. “Ignorance of the law is no excuse” has always been a traditional mantra, but it has been reported that Americans are now subject to more than 5 million laws. How can anyone possibly know and obey them all? And they keep piling up. Every legislative body — municipal, county, state and federal — is constantly making new laws, and nothing ever seems to be taken off the books.
So, if ignorance of the law is really no excuse, then we are all charged with specific knowledge of the millions of laws that regulate us. That’s impossible and is undoubtedly one of the reasons why many Americans have become increasingly cynical about the law and justice in this country.
And, if 5 million laws are not enough, there are also hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of rules that are superimposed on top of them — by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and a host of other agencies.
Legal precedent also has added to the burden of excessive control and regulation that are strangling our society. Hundreds of thousands of court cases are used to interpret the laws and make up entire libraries of additional rules we are expected to abide by in our daily lives. The sheer weight and complexity of all of this breeds contempt for the law, evasion and deliberate lawbreaking.
— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who has lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog, Opinionfest.com.
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