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Right on Crime | December 13, 2011
Lawrence Lewis decided that elderly and ill veterans should not have sewage flooding their floors. As a result, he was sentenced to a year of federal probation, and he has a criminal record that he cannot avoid disclosing when applying for jobs.
The federal government accused Lewis of violating the Clean Water Act because when he attempted to divert sewage from flooding the military retirement home where he served as the chief engineer, he unknowingly diverted the sewage into a creek that carried water to the Potomac River. He thought—as did all of the other staffers at the retirement home—that the storm drain was connected to a city sewage-treatment system.
This innocent mistake proved costly. Under the Clean Water Act, the government can prove up its case by showing that the alleged defendant either acted knowingly or negligently. Negligent behavior is the failure to use reasonable care. Lewis, of course, thought he was using reasonable care by seeking to prevent the flooding of the nursing home—but the government does not take this mistake into consideration.
This heavy-handed use of criminal law is inappropriate. It is needlessly costly for taxpayers, who foot the bill for the prosecution, trial, and supervision of a defendant who is not guilty of a blameworthy act. Criminal penalties for unknowing mistakes such as Mr. Lewis’s only serve to grow government, and they do not protect citizens.
There are over 4,500 federal criminal laws on the books and more than 780,000 federal convictions in the last decade. Furthermore, “increasing numbers of federal, state, and local criminal offenses…dispense with a culpable mental state or require mere negligence instead of intent, knowledge, or recklessness,” according to Right on Crime’s Marc Levin. Levin advocates for the traditional requirement of a culpable mental state when obtaining criminal convictions. He also proposes the increased use of citations or injunctions for behavior that is not traditionally criminal.
State and federal criminal codes should be reviewed to ensure that appropriate culpable mental states are included as elements of criminal offenses, and Mr. Lewis should not have a criminal conviction hanging over his head for unknowingly diverting sewage to the wrong storm drain to save elderly veterans’ retirement homes.