In 2012, Lawrence Lewis, an engineer from Washington D.C., was arrested after unknowingly violating the Clean Water Act while doing his job. While most people know when they commit a crime, there are also countless instances where Americans unknowingly break the law while performing what they assume are normal everyday tasks. Worse still, there have been few attempts to stop this type of over-criminalization through reform.
At the time of his unwitting violation of the Clean Water Act, Lewis was working at a military retirement home, where he had to handle its backed-up sewage system. When Lewis was first hired at the home, he had been taught to divert the backed-up sewage system to a nearby storm drain, which was thought to empty into the city’s sewer system. Lewis and his staff were misinformed. In fact, the diverted waste ended up in a creek that flowed into the Potomac River, violating the Clean Water Act.
Lawrence Lewis, who had worked hard to escape life in the inner city, wound up facing jail time for performing an everyday task. As Lewis put it: “I couldn’t believe that I was born and raised in the projects and I worked so hard to get out that situation and build a professional career and here I am at work getting arrested for something I had no idea was wrong.” It is a sad reality that Lewis and countless other Americans continue to suffer as a result of overcriminalization. The criminal-justice system should be used to protect the lives, liberty, and property of all Americans and punish truly dangerous offenders, who commit crimes that deserve punishment. The system should not be used to make good, upstanding citizens look and feel like criminals.
For more information on this and similar cases visit the NACDL https://www.nacdl.org/Content/TheFaceofOvercriminalization