Monday, October 05, 2009


Something both the Left and the Right should be able to agree on is the overcriminalization of essentially unknowing or careless acts.

Kathy and George Norris lived under the specter of a covert government investigation for almost six months before the government unsealed a secret indictment and revealed why the Fish and Wildlife Service had treated their family home as if it were a training base for suspected terrorists. Orchids.

That's right. Orchids.

By March 2004, federal prosecutors were well on their way to turning 66-year-old retiree George Norris into an inmate in a federal penitentiary - based on his home-based business of cultivating, importing and selling orchids...

Mr. Norris ended up spending almost two years in prison because he didn't have the proper paperwork for some of the many orchids he imported. The orchids were all legal - but Mr. Norris and the overseas shippers who had packaged the flowers had failed to properly navigate the many, often irrational, paperwork requirements the U.S. imposed when it implemented an arcane international treaty's new restrictions on trade in flowers and other flora.

The judge who sentenced Mr. Norris had some advice for him and his wife: "Life sometimes presents us with lemons." Their job was, yes, to "turn lemons into lemonade."

The judge apparently failed to appreciate how difficult it is to run a successful lemonade stand when you're an elderly diabetic with coronary complications, arthritis and Parkinson's disease serving time in a federal penitentiary. If only Mr. Norris had been a Libyan terrorist, maybe some European official at least would have weighed in on his behalf to secure a health-based mercy release.

Those on the Left often complain that George W. Bush "shredded the Constitution" after 9/11, but the U.S. government has been actively expanding its power to snoop, inspect, and pry into Americans' lives without warrants or cause for most of the last 30 years. The first excuse was the War on Drugs, allowing police officers to search cars for ordinary traffic stops, hold suspects until the suspect defecated, snooped into homes with infrared cameras and more. After 9/11, the government used terrorist attacks as the latest excuse for more snooping, spying and surveilling.

Now, we're faced with more than simply snooping and spying. The article cited cases of ordinary citizens making simple mistakes--inappropriate paperwork or failure to place a sticker on a UPS package--to lock those citizens away in federal penitentiaries for years.

It's one thing when people knowingly and willfully commit crimes. But the activities discussed in this article and by the House Judiciary committee on overcriminalization simply do not rise to the same levels. These are crimes based on vague laws written intentionally without specifics. Such cases are shameful.