Michigan has over 3,000 felonies and misdemeanors on the books — far more than the average resident could possibly remember. Obvious crimes, like murder or theft, make up some of these statutes, but more of them cover actions such as “transporting Christmas trees without a manifest” or burning grass clippings or leaves in certain areas.
These laws are especially dangerous to ordinary people because 26 percent of Michigan’s felonies and 59 percent of its misdemeanors don’t specify criminal intent. This means that people who never intended to break the law may be (and often are) prosecuted for crimes they had no idea they committed.
These reforms would not allow a Michigander to get out of a larceny charge by claiming ignorance of the law, but they would make it less likely for him to do jail time for catching a fish he didn’t realize was protected, or being smacked with hefty fines for failing to properly display a camping license on his tent.
Lisa Snyder’s neighbors had children and early starts at work. She was happy to watch their kids until the school bus arrived in the morning — until she was threatened with penalties for running an unlicensed child care service.Michigan is not alone is this area. In 2009, it was estimated that many Americans unknowingly commit three felonies per day:
Alan Taylor needed more parking at his growing business and thought he had received all the proper permits to expand the lot on his property. But the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality successfully prosecuted him for jeopardizing a wetland he didn’t know existed.
Kenneth Schumacher got rid of some scrap tires at what turned out to be an unlicensed disposal facility. Though he didn’t intend to break the law, he was sentenced to 270 days in jail and a fine of $10,000.
The average professional in this country wakes up in the morning, goes to work, comes home, eats dinner, and then goes to sleep, unaware that he or she has likely committed several federal crimes that day. Why? The answer lies in the very nature of modern federal criminal laws, which have exploded in number but also become impossibly broad and vague.