WSJ on Overcriminalization: 18 USC 1001 and Lying to the Feds

April 9th, 2012

Another good piece from WSJ on:

As the U.S. federal criminal code has grown increasingly large and complicated, critics from the left and right alike argue it is becoming too easy for Americans to unwittingly commit crimes.

Nobody argues that telling a falsehood to Uncle Sam is either wise or admirable, but some say 1001 is overly broad. “There is no statute out there that’s more pernicious,” says Stephen Saltzburg, a former senior Justice Department official and now a law professor at George Washington University.

He says the law is so vague that harmless misstatements can be turned into federal felonies. A person can be charged even if the lie didn’t really fool anyone, or if the person didn’t know the criminal consequences of fibbing, some critics point out.

By contrast, Mr. O’Brien says that in his experience local authorities rarely prosecute someone for lying, and when they do it is generally treated as a misdemeanor

While 1001 helps nab guilty parties, it can also be a trap “for innocent people to fall into,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R., Texas), in an interview. Rep. Gohmert, a critic of the federal justice system’s expansion, said he hopes to put new limits on the statute in a criminal-reform bill pending in the House.