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Thursday, July 26, 2018

5 Ways Uncle Sam Could Ruin Your Summer Road Trip

Plenty of things can ruin a road trip, but overcriminalization should not be one of them.

The summer road trip: Is it pure family fun, or a vile crime spree?

If you’re planning a wholesome cross-country adventure, beware: Uncle Sam has over-packed the federal code with more criminal laws and regulations than anyone can count. Here are a few ways that excess legal baggage could ruin a road trip.

1. Peanut Smuggling

Everyone has to eat, and peanuts are a staple of southeastern roadside produce stands. In fact, boiled peanuts are the official snack of South Carolina. But peanuts also come fried, raw, and in countless other ways.

But if you transport peanut shells or peanuts in shells out of the Carolinas, watch out if they’re not boiled or roasted. That could be a federal crime (under 7 U.S.C. §7734(a)(1)(B) and 7 CFR §301.80(b)(7)). Certain other produce cannot be “smuggled” out of the Carolinas either, including summer favorites like cantaloupes and watermelons if they have any soil left on them after a wash.

Whatever produce you buy, make sure it isn’t packaged in a used crate, box, or burlap sack. Transporting “used farm products containers” out of the Carolinas also violates federal regulations.

Those rules were designed to prevent the spread of crop-destroying parasites. A noble goal, yes, but should a cloud of criminality follow travelers just for taking peanuts and poorly washed melons across state lines? Such misdeeds can be punished by fines and up to five years in prison.

The FBI may not launch “Operation Dirty Watermelons” anytime soon, but then again, Abner Schoenwetter never imagined he would spend more than five years in prison for importing lobsters into the U.S. in plastic bags instead of boxes. That violated Honduran law, and the Lacey Act made that a crime in the United States, too. So best be careful.

2. Littering Laws

Road-trippers have to throw out their trash—especially those peanut shells. But if you happen to do so on federal property, be careful.

Most people know that littering is illegal in every state. The federal government need not bother with such trifles since the Assimilative Crimes Act applies state laws to misdeeds on federal property. Still, federal bureaucrats have added arcane rules on littering, too.

In national parks, for example, it is a federal crime (18 USC §1865 and 36 CFR §2.14(a)(2)) to place trash items in any “government refuse receptacles” if you brought them from home. So, discarding empty drinks or snacks that you purchased at a store may be fine, but if you brought them from home, you could be punished by up to six months in prison, fines, or both.

Federal property management regulations also make it a crime to dispose of rubbish “improperly.” With that unclear standard in mind, at facilities managed by the General Services Administration, accidentally littering or perhaps putting a recyclable item in the trash is punishable with fines and up to 30 days in prison.

3. Bug Swatting

Travelers can expect one inevitable pest on the road: insects. But how can they prepare to encounter any of the approximately 100 insect species that are protected by the Endangered Species Act from being harmed or transported without a permit?

From California’s Delhi Sands flower-loving fly to Florida’s Miami tiger beetle, failing to identify a protected insect and harming it—accidentally or not—could also result in criminal penalties.

The nonprofit law firm Pacific Legal Foundation represented several land and livestock groups in a challenge to a federal policy under which, as they put it, “people could go to jail for accidentally striking an unknown, endangered insect while driving down the highway.”

Under Obama-era policy, drivers also had to look out for common ravens, northern flickers, and the hundreds of other bird species that are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed vehicle collisions among the top three human threats to these protected birds, yet hitting one, even by accident, is a federal crime. That broad law was used to punish disfavored oil and gas businesses when protected birds were harmed at their facilities while favored groups, like wind turbine operators, got a pass.

In a win for the rule of law last year, the Interior Department’s Office of the Solicitor changed course. Department officials decided (in Memorandum M-37050) that the offense of harming migratory birds should reach only “direct and affirmative, purposeful actions,” not mere accidents.

4. An End to Bickering

Any road-trip fights can be stopped at the nearest Indian reservation. There, federal regulations (25 CFR §11.443) make it a petty misdemeanor if, just to harass another person, someone commits “offensive touching”; taunts or insults someone “in a manner likely to provoke violent or disorderly response”; or commits “any other course of alarming conduct serving no legitimate purpose.”

Those broad rules seem like improbable grounds for a federal case. But imagine Carol Anne Bond’s surprise when she was charged with violating the Chemical Weapons Implementation Act, which Congress passed to implement a 1993 treaty: the Chemical Weapons Convention, banning the production and use of chemical weapons.

Bond’s crime was to put caustic chemicals on the car and mailbox of a woman who had an affair with her husband. Thankfully, the Supreme Court heard Bond’s case and decided not to stretch the chemical weapons law far enough to address her victim’s minor thumb burn.

5. Toy Troubles

If you bring toys to keep the kids entertained, there are still more rules to watch out for. Under federal explosives regulations (49 CFR §173.54(i)), for example, transporting a “toy torpedo” across state lines could land someone in jail for up to five years, even for an unintentional violation.

“Toy torpedo” could mean a small firework or a common pool toy, but all the rule states is that transporting a “toy torpedo” across state lines is illegal if it has a “maximum outside dimension [that] exceeds 23 mm” (49 CFR §173.54(i)). Any water-bound family better make sure they leave all toy torpedoes at home.

While they’re at it, families better think twice before bringing toy drones with them, too. As Heritage Foundation scholars have explained elsewhere, Federal Aviation Administration officials have argued that all federal criminal laws that protect manned air travel should also apply to toy drones. They consider damaging a small drone no different than damaging a Boeing 747, so one wrong move with the family drone could damage it and send someone to jail for quite some time.

Under federal law (18 U.S. Code § 32), damaging an aircraft is punishable by fines, imprisonment up to 20 years, or both. Is 20 years in jail really worth all those cool drone photographs of the family vacation?

The List Continues

While it is unlikely that anyone would in fact be prosecuted for any of these offenses, and therefore these examples are offered somewhat tongue-in-cheek, amassing federal criminal laws that might apply to all kinds of mistakes—from peanut smuggling to stepping on an insect—reflects the unfortunate trend of overcriminalization.

Prosecuting an unwitting violator of one of the laws listed above would be a rare misstep for federal officials. Still, attorney and author Harvey Silverglate estimates that the average American commits three crimes a day without knowing it.

Perhaps Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas can keep up with all of these rules on his road trips, which he has spoken about before. But can the average American also keep up?

Plenty of things can ruin a road trip, but overcriminalization should not be one of them.

Reprinted from The Daily Signal

  • John-Michael Seibler is a visiting legal fellow in the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation.