Intent Requirement Has The Threshold Been Lowered In Federal Courts

In our last post, we discussed the thousands of federal criminal charges that are found in 42 of the 51 titles of the United States Code. Some experts have blamed lawmakers for creating an ambiguity in the law concerning the intent requirement that our criminal justice system was based upon and making crimes easier to convict and harder to defend.

Ambiguity is not the only problem created by the thousands of criminal laws and regulations that have been enacted since the first criminal statute in 1790. When there were fewer than 20 criminal statutes, it was easy for citizens to know whether their actions will lead to criminal charges.

Today, with new legislation created every year, it makes it nearly impossible to ask a citizen to keep up with all the changes and yet courts often seem to think that they will. Take for example the story of an Arizona man who was convicted under federal firearm charges. He was convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence charge in the early 1990s. After his conviction and sentencing, a law was enacted prohibiting any person with a record such as his from possessing a firearm.

The man had owned guns for years – legally – that he would have given up if he ever became aware of the law, but no one told him. When he appealed, the court said that the “knowledge” requirement was met because he knew he possessed the guns, not the knowledge that possessing them was illegal after the effective date of the statute.

The average person will never be able to even scratch the surface of federal criminal law, but thankfully for them there are attorneys who can navigate the confusion and advocate for your interests and your rights.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, “As Federal Crime List Grows, Threshold of Guilt Declines,” Gary Fields and John R. Emshwiller, Sept. 27, 2011

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