Our federal criminal code contains more than 4,000 criminal laws, many of which are completely irrelevant and absurd. According to Heritage Foundation legal expert Paul Larkin, here are some examples of the more ridiculous federal criminal statutes:
- It is a crime to make unauthorized use of the 4-H club emblem, the Swiss Confederation coat of arms, and the “Smokey Bear” or “Woodsy Owl” characters;
- It is a crime to misuse the slogan “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute”;
- It is a crime to poll a service member before an election;
- It is a crime to transport dentures across state lines;
- It is a crime to sell malt liquor labeled “pre-war strength”;
- It is a crime to write a check for an amount less than $1;
- It is a crime to install a toilet that uses too much water per flush.
As amusing as these obsolete crimes are, they represent a larger problem with America’s criminal justice system. Overcriminalization — the overuse and misuse of the criminal law which threatens the liberty of ordinary citizens — results from the sheer number of unnecessary amount of criminal laws. Larkin points out that so long as a criminal law is contained in the U.S. Code, it will likely be there forever:
A criminal law enacted by the First Congress that still can be found in the United States Code continues to outlaw and punish the same defined conduct today, regardless of whether the reason why that act was adopted has become unimportant or has been long forgotten. The statute may have fallen into desuetude, but it remains good law.
Larkin recommends a thorough “pruning” of the code to remove archaic laws. England, which has 44,000 pieces of criminal legislation, has begun this process. Across the pond, it is no longer illegal to “handle a salmon under suspicious circumstances.”
What do you think? Should we prune these obsolete criminal laws?