From the overcriminalization file, Feds raid Gibson GUitar Factory because wood from India may violate regulation

August 26th, 2011

Sigh. From WSJ, which has been doing great work chronicling the overcriminalization of our society.

Federal agents swooped in on Gibson Guitar Wednesday, raiding factories and offices in Memphis and Nashville, seizing several pallets of wood, electronic files and guitars. The Feds are keeping mum, but in a statement yesterday Gibson’s chairman and CEO, Henry Juszkiewicz, defended his company’s manufacturing policies, accusing the Justice Department of bullying the company. “The wood the government seized Wednesday is from a Forest Stewardship Council certified supplier,” he said, suggesting the Feds are using the aggressive enforcement of overly broad laws to make the company cry uncle.

And don’t travel with a vintage guitar that may have this forbidden wood!

The tangled intersection of international laws is enforced through a thicket of paperwork. Recent revisions to 1900’s Lacey Act require that anyone crossing the U.S. border declare every bit of flora or fauna being brought into the country. One is under “strict liability” to fill out the paperwork—and without any mistakes.

It’s not enough to know that the body of your old guitar is made of spruce and maple: What’s the bridge made of? If it’s ebony, do you have the paperwork to show when and where that wood was harvested and when and where it was made into a bridge? Is the nut holding the strings at the guitar’s headstock bone, or could it be ivory? “Even if you have no knowledge—despite Herculean efforts to obtain it—that some piece of your guitar, no matter how small, was obtained illegally, you lose your guitar forever,” Prof. Thomas has written. “Oh, and you’ll be fined $250 for that false (or missing) information in your Lacey Act Import Declaration.”

Oh strict liability crimes.

Update: More from my friend Trevor Burrus at Cato (watch out for Trevor, he will be big soon):

Like a legal Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the laws may not exist until federal prosecutors observe them.

One of the most heartbreaking stories of federal prosecutors running amok with the Lacey Act is the story of Abner Schoenwetter, a grandfatherly Miami seafood importer who spent six years in a federal prison for importing lobster tails that violated the laws of Honduras. Except they didn’t. Honduras filed briefs and testified on behalf of Schoenwetter and his co-defendants, pointing out that what federal prosecutors thought to be Honduran law was not actually Honduran law. Federal prosecutors were unperturbed, however, determined to wipe this menace to society from our streets. (You can read the full, sad story of the case here.)