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InsiderOnline Blog: August 2004

It's a Crime!

A quick case from

On April 3, 2002, Kay Leibrand surrendered to the police. She was fingerprinted. They took her mug shots. The 61-year old grandmother and software engineer was told that she had broken the law. She might go to jail or perhaps she would get off with just a fine. On May 30, 2002, she was arraigned. Her crime was allowing street-side xylosma bushes to grow more than two feet high.

Leibrand, who eventually cut her hedge to stumps and was threatened with major fines and jail time, is the victim of overcriminalization. As described in the full case study, "Palo Alto successfully attacked one of its own citizens with a criminal statute about plant size."

Read the full case study here. Very little legal jargon, we promise!

Kay Leibrand's case is emblematic of over-criminalization, which is when formerly civil matters are brought into the criminal realm in ways that break the bounds of the traditional limits of criminality. While criminal acts once required both a bad intent and a harmful act, today many Americans are charged as criminals though they've done nothing that fits the common-sense, traditional view of criminality.

Overcriminalization creates a huge burden on the criminal justice system, the limited resources of which could be better used to fight crime as it is traditionally understood. Overcriminalization leads to legal confusion, selective enforcement, and unfair prosecutions. It dangles massive and disproportionate penalties over the heads of citizens who are honest and otherwise law-abiding.

Zero-tolerance laws in schools, the prosecution of honest and successful businessmen and women, and criminal cases against doctors who may have made billing errors are all examples of the burden that overcriminaliation puts on those whose behavior is not criminal, as the term is commonly understood.

For more case studies, court cases, and commentary, visit Heritage's

Posted on 08/18/04 09:16 AM by Mary Katherine Ham

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