Overcriminalization in America

Did you know that there are over 4,500 laws and 300,000 regulations in the US that can lead to imprisonment? Over the years, Congress has added more than four dozen new laws to the legal code every year in an attempt to address problems in the country—whether they are actual issues or not.

Once, the US legal code focused on “common law crimes” such as murder, assault, theft, and other serious offenses that are universally condemned. It now covers such a broad scope of crimes that virtually any citizen can be considered a criminal under state and federal law. The term used to describe this unfortunate reality is overcriminalization.

In many cases, American citizens are being charged with crimes that they did not even know existed, and that they did not intend to commit. Overcriminalization has also given rise to a growing grey area in the interpretation and execution of criminal laws—with alarming consequences.

United States v. Clay is one of the most infamous cases illustrating the dangerous  consequences of overcriminalization. WellCare, a healthcare provider in Florida, came under scrutiny for its interpretation of the state’s complex, yet vague 80/20 law for behavioral healthcare providers.

Consistent with standard practice among healthcare providers, WellCare consulted with both in-house and independent legal counsel and came to a reasonable interpretation of the law vetted by lawyers. The state of Florida never issued any regulations that contradicted this interpretation of the law. 

Despite WellCare’s due diligence, federal prosecutors disagreed with its reading of Florida’s law. Several WellCare executives, including Todd Farha, were charged with healthcare fraud. During legal proceedings, the matter of interpreting the complicated law fell to a jury, instead of a judge. Expert witnesses testified that WellCare had interpreted the law reasonably and had even provided an above-average standard of care. Despite this, Todd Farha and the other executives were convicted and sentenced to up to three years in prison. The jury’s verdicts were upheld by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

United States v. Clay is just one example of overcriminalization. It’s not hard to find others, including these offered by the Cato Institute:

– a river guide who jumped in the water to save a teenager was charged with “obstructing government operations” because he did not wait for search and rescue teams.

– people belonging to a Christian outreach group were prosecuted for trying to feed the homeless in a park in Ft. Lauderdale because local laws forbade sharing food.

It’s clear that Americans’ civil rights are under attack when citizens can be prosecuted or imprisoned because they unknowingly violate an obscure law, or because their reasonable interpretation of a law differs from that of the government.

Overcriminalization and our country’s bloated, labyrinthine legal code should alarm anyone who cares about freedom.