Overcriminalization on the Gulf Coast is a threat to liberty and economic growth

The Texas Public Policy Foundation recently released the report Engulfed by Environmental Crimes: Overcriminalization on the Gulf Coast, that provides an overview of “crimes” in the Gulf Coast states, explaining why overcriminalization along the coast is detrimental to economic liberty and growth, and proposes solutions for reining in the problem.

Marc Levin and Vikrant Reddy find that advocates across the political spectrum increasingly criticize the tendency of government to use criminal law to regulate behavior not traditionally considered criminal. Precise definitions of overcriminalization vary, but there is a growing consensus that overcriminalization is a widespread problem.

Marc Levin, the Foundation’s Director for the Center for Effective Justice, stated “‘Ground zero’ for state-level overcriminalization is the Gulf Coast area of the United States. Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida all border the Gulf of Mexico and between these five states alone they have passed nearly 1,000 laws criminalizing various coastal activities. One of many actual cases documented in the report that stemmed from these myriad laws:  Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Enforcement Division agents discovered Burt Rico hunting with a deer feeder equipped with lights. Agents cited him for hunting without a basic and big game hunting license, failure to wear hunter orange, and hunting deer with illegal methods and during illegal hours with an artificial light. Rico pleaded no contest to hunting deer illegally at night with a .22 caliber rifle, and in addition to a fine of $1,051, he was sentenced to sixty days in the Avoyelles Parish Jail.”

Levin adds there are some 11 Texas felonies relating to harvesting oysters which carry potential prison terms of a decade or more. Moreover, these environmental offenses frequently specify that neither any actual harm or level of intent are required for conviction.

“Overcriminalization along the Gulf Coast is a significant burden to businesses as it chills activity vital for the health of a state such as fishing, drilling, hunting and building,” said Vikrant Reddy, policy analyst for the Foundation’s Center for Effective Justice. “The labyrinth of vague offenses fails to put individuals and businesses on notice as to what conduct is prohibited, leaving those in such industries with the unenviable choice of curtailing productive, job-creating economic activity or taking a risk of being branded a criminal.”

The five Gulf Coast states named in this report can take the lead by reining in their environmental criminal laws to conform more closely to traditional legal norms. Key recommendations include eliminating or converting to civil violations those environmental criminal laws that do not involve actual harm, ensuring that a culpable mental state is required for conviction, and removing the authority of unelected bureaucrats to create offenses not specifically designated by the legislature. Hopefully, such state reforms will set a positive example for the federal government, which has promulgated numerous byzantine environmental crimes, one of which led to the imprisonment of a lobster fisherman for five years for harvesting lobster tails of the incorrect size.

“Although this report focuses primarily on the economic ramifications of overcriminalization, the most important reason for reform is simply that overcriminalization is a failure of the government’s responsibility to secure liberty,” said Levin. “Rather than allowing individuals and business owners along the Gulf Coast to maximize their liberty and opportunity up to the point that they do not harm others, our laws far too often create confusion and injustice by reaching far beyond the goal of punishing those who engage in blameworthy conduct that causes real harm.”