By Mark Nestmann, The Nestmann Group
Do you own a dog? You could face six months in federal prison if you walk it on federal lands and your leash is longer than six feet.
Do you have a bank account? If you deposit or withdraw more than $10,000 in cash over multiple transactions, you could be imprisoned for up to five years. Plus, they could take every penny in the account, under the theory it “facilitated” your crime.
Do you have foreign investments? Neglect to tell Uncle Sam about them, and the penalties will be brutal. Forget to file just one form? You could face a $10,000 penalty per account per year.
There’s no requirement that you know any of these crimes exist for you to be found guilty of violating them. After all, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.”
Given this, you might think Uncle Sam would make it easy to understand exactly what’s legal and what’s not. Think again.
In 1790, the first set of federal criminal laws contained a grand total of 20 crimes. Since then, the number of federal crimes listed has bloated beyond recognition. No one knows how many federal crimes exist, although a 1998 study from the American Bar Association concluded the total was likely “much higher” than 3,000.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Federal agencies have the power to “make” laws called “Administrative Laws” out of thin air. Violate one of these, you will end up in a cell. Indeed, the number of federal regulations carrying criminal penalties may be as high as 300,000.
And don’t forget about state and local laws. In Arizona, you face 25 years imprisonment for cutting down a cactus. In Mississippi, it is illegal for a male to be sexually aroused in a public place. In Pennsylvania, a woman was arrested for swearing at a clogged toilet.
Given these facts, you could be forgiven for thinking that Congress might put the brakes on penning new federal criminal law. Unfortunately, that’s not happening. Indeed, the pace of federal “criminalization” is accelerating. A 2008 study concluded that since the start of 2000, Congress created at least 452 new crimes. That’s more than one a week.
Since then, there has been no indication this trend will slow down, in fact the opposite is the case. For instance, last year, I learned US persons with certain international investments are now required to report them to the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). Until 2014, you needed to file this form only if the BEA “invited” you to do so. But in November 2014, the BEA issued final regulations making it mandatory to file this form – and imposing civil and criminal penalties if you don’t.
When was the last time you received an official notification from the BEA inviting you to file this form? I’ve never received one – I only learned about this requirement when my accountant warned me about it.
Anyone can inadvertently run afoul of America’s far-reaching network of criminal laws. Depositing or withdrawing lawfully-earned funds from your own bank account is hardly what most people would consider a criminal offense. Neither is walking a dog with a six-and-a-half-foot leash.
Fortunately, America is nearly unique in criminalizing so many offenses. The world prison population rate, based on United Nations estimates, is 144 per 100,000. By comparison, it’s 698 per 100,000 in the US – nearly five times as high. A statistic like this must make us all ask, why? And beyond that, why do we stick around? A second passport, or even expatriation will provide some relief from the American cancer of criminalization.
If you have any interest in setting up a second home overseas, don’t wait until some inadvertent slipup results in an arrest and possible felony conviction. Once you have a criminal record, you’ll find it much more difficult to acquire legal residence anywhere else.
There couldn’t be a better time than now to begin, while the coast is clear.
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