Mike Chase, author of the excellent Twitter feed @CrimeADay, has now written the illustrated handbook, How to Become a Federal Criminal. In truth, a handbook wasn’t necessary because it is very easy to become a federal criminal.
Criminal Law in Every Nook and Cranny of Life
You may know that you are required to report if you are traveling to or from the United States with $10,000 or more in cash. Don’t hop over the Canadian border to buy a used car, for example, or the Feds may confiscate your cash (millions of dollars are confiscated every year).
Did you also know that you can’t leave the United States with more than $5 in nickels? That’s a federal crime punishable by up to five years in prison. How about carrying a metal detector in a national park—up to six months in prison. And God forbid you should use your metal detector and find something more than 100 years old, that can put you away for up to a year. Also illegal in a national park? Making unreasonable gestures to a passing horse.
The expansion of federal criminal law into every nook and cranny of life can be amusing, but there is a darker side.
The feds also have unbelievably powerful tools at their disposal. They can subpoena your bank records, listen to your phone calls, indict you in a secret proceeding called a grand jury, and, if they think you lied to them, they can charge you for that alone. Then, if you can get a jury to find you guilty on just one charge, the judges is allowed to sentence you up to the statutory maximum based on things you were never charged with, or even things a jury acquitted you of, so long as the judge decides you probably did them. (italics added).
Moreover, when anyone can be charged with a crime, the application of criminal law becomes discretionary and that discretion may be used to suppress the free exercise of other rights. Indeed, the recent Supreme Court case, Nieves v. Bartlett, makes it easier for the police to arrest people even if the reason for the arrest is retaliation for lawful behavior.
Slate: The First Amendment makes it unconstitutional for government officials to retaliate against you because they dislike your speech. At the same time, federal law gives you the right to sue state officials for compensation if they violate constitutional rights such as your right to free speech. But on Tuesday, the Supreme Court invented a rule that will often allow police officers to arrest people in retaliation for disfavored speech without liability.
….Because local laws are full of minor infractions, like “loitering,” that are frequently violated without incident, police will often have a pretext to arrest people engaged in speech the officers don’t like. By immunizing such abuse, Nieves may have devastating effects on demonstrators, press photographers, and anyone who wants to exercise their speech rights in public, like the right to film the police or verbally challenge officer misconduct. The power to arrest is a potent tool for suppressing speech because even if charges are later dropped, arrestees must undergo the ordeal—and dangers—of being booked and jailed, and they may have to disclose the arrest on future job and housing applications, among other ramifications.