A Good Example of Overcriminalization in Federal Court

The term “overcriminalization” refers to the government creating laws that make certain conduct a crime when that conduct is more appropriately addressed with less serious sanctions such as a fine, or perhaps not at all. A recent article on the Miami Herald’s website discusses this overcriminalization issue and provides a very good example. In 1999, Abner Shoenwetter, a 64 year old seafood importer with no prior criminal record, was charged with smuggling and conspiracy after he agreed to buy lobsters from a supplier he had used many times in the past. Apparently, these particular lobsters were caught in violation of regulations in Honduras, even though it was later determined that the Honduras regulations did not apply to the lobsters. The alleged violations related to how the lobsters were packaged and the size of the lobsters. In any case, Mr. Shoenwetter served six years in federal prison for agreeing to buy these lobsters.

The article notes that there are more than 4,450 federal crimes in existence to go along with more than 300,000 federal regulations for which one can be punished with criminal sanctions. Between 2000 and 2007, Congress created 452 new crimes, an average of more than one per week. One problem, it seems, is that our reactive government has a natural tendency to get bigger, with new laws, but no one seems to take the time to assess the state of the old laws to eliminate those that may be unnecessary, out of date, too ambiguous or just plain wrong.

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