In recent decades, Congress has repeatedly crafted laws that weaken or disregard the notion of criminal intent. Today not only are there thousands more criminal laws than before, but it is easier to fall afoul of them.
As a result, what once might have been considered simply a mistake is now sometimes punishable by jail time.
Proving “willful violation” of laws is tough. But a lower threshold of “knowing violation” can be, well, a bit extreme. Here are a couple of examples from the story:
In one case, Gary Hancock of Flagstaff, Ariz., was found guilty in 1999 of violating a federal law prohibiting people with a misdemeanor domestic violence record from gun ownership. At the time of his domestic-violence convictions in the early 1990s, the statute didn’t exist—but later it was applied to him. He hadn’t been told of the new law, and he still owned guns. Mr. Hancock was convicted and sentenced to five years’ probation.
His lawyer, Jane McClellan, says prosecutors “did not have to prove he knew about the law. They only had to prove that he knew he had guns.”
Upholding the conviction, a federal appellate court said that “the requirement of ‘knowing’ conduct refers to knowledge of possession, rather than knowledge of the legal consequences of possession.”
So if you know you’re doing something (duh), and that something is illegal, you “know” you’re “doing something” illegal.
And then there’s
In 1998, Dane A. Yirkovsky, a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, man with an extensive criminal record, was back in school pursuing a high-school diploma and working as a drywall installer. While doing some remodeling work, Mr. Yirkovsky found a .22 caliber bullet underneath a carpet, according to court documents. He put it in a box in his room, the records show.
A few months later, local police found the bullet during a search of his apartment. State officials didn’t charge him with wrongdoing, but federal officials contended that possessing even one bullet violated a federal law prohibiting felons from having firearms.
Mr. Yirkovsky pleaded guilty to having the bullet. He received a congressionally mandated 15-year prison sentence, which a federal appeals court upheld but called “an extreme penalty under the facts as presented to this court.” Mr. Yirkovsky is due to be released in May 2013.
Even though a bullet is not a firearm, this guy knew he had a bullet. And federal prosecutors proved that having a bullet was the same as having a firearm. So the guy “knew” he had a bullet, and therefore was convicted of knowingly committing a crime.
Boom. 15 years.
Clearly, the firearms violations will get highlighted on this site. But the principle applies across the board.