Possession of Bullet Results in 15 Years Is Ambiguity in Federal Intent Creating Injustice

Mr. Johnson made a few mistakes in his younger years that made their way onto his criminal record, but he decided to change his life and get a full time job as a drywall installer while he went back to school. In 1998, he made another mistake, this time it landed him in prison for 15 years.

Mr. Johnson was convicted of federal weapon charges because he found a .22 caliber bullet while remodeling his home. He put it in a box and forgot about it until federal authorities arrested him for possession of a firearm by a person with a criminal record.

Justice Antonin Scalia dissented in an unrelated weapons case and accused lawmakers in Congress of enacting “fuzzy, leave-the-details-to-be-sorted-out-by-the-courts” legislation in an “increasing volume.”

Justice Scalia is not the only expert to criticize the number of criminal laws and regulations created each year. Other experts say that because of the number of laws being passed, the mens rea – intent requirement – has been eroded. The ambiguity in the laws, they say, has created an inconsistency in their enforcement.

When the first criminal legislation was passed in 1790, it created less than 20 criminal violations. Now, there are an estimated 4,500 criminal statutes and thousands of other regulations that lead to criminal sanctions when violated. In our next post, we will continue the discussion about the ambiguity in the intent requirement that our criminal justice system was based upon.

*We have changed the names of the individuals in the post to protect their identity.

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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