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Federal white collar crimes easier to prove with erosion of mens rea: Part 1

Congress has been adding new laws to the federal penal code every year since the country was formed. In 1790, there were 20 federal crimes on the books, while today there are more than 4,500. During the same time that federal crimes have continued to increase, there has been an erosion of provisions that say that a person must have had a "guilty mind" when they committed the crime.

The mens rea provision means that prosecutors have a higher burden of proof to demonstrate that a person was guilty of a federal crime. The person had to know that they committed the crime and knowingly or even willfully violated it. Without these provisions, people can be convicted for actions that they had no idea were against the law.

People should know that an action like murder is against the law, but what about knowing that they need to report bank transactions above $10,000 or that they cannot create a feeling of fear in others if they are protesting for animal rights? Clearly, the amount of federal laws has gone beyond what a regular citizen would know about and is leading to legal ramifications for people who unknowingly broke one of thousands of federal laws.

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal discusses this issue and particularly takes note of the changes to federal white collar crime statutes that have made it easier for people to be convicted of crimes. The next post will take a closer look at this issue.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, "As Federal Crime List Grows, Threshold of Guilt Declines," Gary Fields and John R. Emshwiller, Sept. 27, 2011

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