Last week, United States Senator Rand Paul introduced the Freedom from Overcriminalization and Unjust Seizures (FOCUS) Act. The FOCUS Act is aimed at reforming the Lacey Act, a federal conservation law from 1900 that was intended to prohibit the trafficking of illegal game. The original Lacey Act, as Senator Paul points out, did not provide for prison sentences and instead punished offenders with sensible fines. Over the years, however, the law has grown increasingly broad and vague.
Last year, the facilities of the Gibson Guitar Corporation were raided by federal authorities under power provided to them by the Lacey Act. Gibson’s CEO Henry Juszkiewicz, a Right on Crime signatory, is now facing prison time – a sanction that is more appropriately applied to violent criminals like murderers and rapists – for the act of importing rosewood from India for use in the manufacture of guitar frets. (The federal government argues that harvesting and exporting the rosewood is illegal under the laws of India, and these laws are to be construed against Gibson under the Lacey Act – but the Indian government appears to be disputing this claim of illegality.)
Senator Paul’s bill would remove the Lacey Act’s references to “foreign law” and it would establish a civil fine system in lieu of criminal sanctions for violators of the act. Four other senators are co-sponsoring the bill with Senator Paul: Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn, South Carolina’s Jim Demint, Idaho’s James Risch, and Utah’s Mike Lee. In a press release to announce the FOCUS Act legislation, Senator Paul quoted Justice Antonin Scalia’s 2011 dissent in Sykes v. United States: “It should be no surprise that as the volume [of criminal laws] increases, so do the number of imprecise laws. And no surprise that our indulgence of imprecisions that violate the Constitution encourages imprecisions that violate the Constitution. Fuzzy, leave-the-details-to-be-sorted-out-by-the-courts legislation is attractive to the Congressman who wants credit for addressing a national problem but does not have the time (or perhaps the votes) to grapple with the nittygritty. In the field of criminal law, at least, it is time to call a halt.”