SANFORD - "Ignorance of the law is no excuse." It's a pithy historical saying everyone has heard and an assumption that still governs the American legal system.
But Elliot Engstrom, a practicing attorney and Fellow in the Elon University School of Law, believes that excessively broad legal interpretations have made it impossible for people to know what's legal or not. One result is what he calls "overcriminalization" -- when government agencies turn relatively harmless violations into far more serious crimes.
He made his case in "Overcriminalization and the Administrative State," Engstrom's presentation on March 29 at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center. The event was part of Central Carolina Community College's Liberty Lecture Series, free public talks highlighting ideas that expand freedom, liberty, and well-being for mankind.
Engstrom discussed four recent legal cases to show how criminal statutes have been applied very broadly by federal and state agencies.
He began in the Gulf of Mexico, where fisherman John Yates and his crew were looking for red grouper when his ship was boarded for inspection by a fish and wildlife officer working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
After being cited for catching undersized fish and told to keep them separated from the larger catch, Yates reportedly instructed a crew member to throw the undersized fish back into the sea before returning to port.
When officials waiting on land couldn't find any undersized fish, Yates was charged with a federal crime under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, a law written after a series of corporate and accounting scandals to keep companies under criminal investigation from shredding evidence. If found guilty under that act, the fisherman could have spent 20 years in prison.
Engstrom says the federal agency did it by loosely interpreting one word in the statute, which forbids the destruction of "any record, document or tangible object" to impede a federal investigation. They argued that a red grouper qualifies as a "tangible object."
"Congress did not write a law that says, 'If you throw a fish overboard, you can be charged with a felony and get over 20 years in prison,'" Engstrom said. "And yet, here he is getting charged with a felony."
After being convicted, Yates appealed, eventually winning a narrow 5-4 decision in the U.S. Supreme Court. But, Engstrom said, not all cases end so well.
It's not that people shouldn't be charged when they do something wrong, the attorney repeated often as he discussed the various cases. But he pointed out how such broad legal interpretations can take a minor violation and blow it out of proportion, leaving people with huge legal bills and facing long prison sentences.
But the biggest problem, Engstrom said, is that it challenges the bedrock assumption that ignorance of the law is no excuse.
He said there are more than 80,000 pages in the Code of Federal Regulations, the set of rules and regulations issued by federal agencies, and applying those rules beyond their intended purpose makes it impossible for people to know what they can or can't do.
"This maxim was written back when everybody would know what the law was," Engstrom said, "because the only things that were crimes were things like murder, rape, theft, larceny, and fraud -- things that everyone already knows are crimes."
Engstrom is principal attorney with Engstrom Law in Greensboro, but now spends most of his time teaching legal methods, communication and administrative law at Elon University. He received his undergraduate degree from Wake Forest University and his law degree four years ago from the University of Georgia.
For more information on Central Carolina Community College, visit the website www.cccc.edu.
Elliot Engstrom, a practicing attorney and fellow in the Elon University School of Law, recently spoke to students at Central Carolina Community College.