Jacques: Michigan laws make criminals of us all

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Chances are you'll commit at least one crime today. If you live in Michigan, that is. And most people have no idea they are breaking the law.

That's because there are way too many laws on the books in this state. And the list keeps growing each year, thanks to overly zealous lawmakers and regulators.

We're not talking murdering or stealing here. Everyone knows that's wrong.

Because of Michigan's extensive penal code, however, many everyday activities can cross over into the crime category — putting too many innocent individuals at risk of committing a "crime."

A report that came out last fall highlighted just how egregious the situation is in Michigan, and showed how this state's criminal code outpaces its Midwest neighbors. The study, "Overcriminalization in the Wolverine State," was researched jointly by the Manhattan Institute, a New York-based policy research group, and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

James Copland, director of the Manhattan Institute's Center for Legal Policy and one of the report's authors, was in Michigan again this week, speaking in Lansing and Metro Detroit about the need to reform the criminal code.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has joined the discussion, too. Miriam Aukerman, an attorney with the ACLU of Michigan, participated Wednesday in a Lansing forum with Copland.

Aukerman showed a video of two musicians arrested in Saugatuck for inadvertently breaking an ordinance that barred playing music in public spaces.

"Michigan has an overcriminalization problem," Copland said in the report. "We knew that when we selected Michigan to survey first among states in the Midwest, but our research has uncovered just how much more complex Michigan's criminal code is in relation to its neighbors."

The study found that Michigan's 918-section criminal code is more than twice the size of Ohio's and Wisconsin's. Michigan has at least 3,102 crimes, and adds 45 to its criminal code each year.

"With thousands of laws and rules on the books, many people are at risk of being charged with a crime for something most people wouldn't consider inherently wrong," said Mike Reitz, executive vice president at the Mackinac Center and co-author of the study.

A little excessive, don't you think?

To get a feel for what activities could get unsuspecting individuals in trouble, here's a few examples:

■One man who disposed of scrap tires at a facility he thought was legal was sentenced to 270 days in prison and a $10,000 fine for unlawfully disposing of the tires; the facility didn't have a license.

■A few years ago, a woman faced charges for operating an illegal day care simply because she helped her neighbor's children get on the morning school bus.

■Other pitfalls include driving motor vehicles in a state wilderness area, purchasing a new or used motor vehicle on the weekend and transporting Christmas trees without a bill of sale.

■And here's a sampling of new laws passed in 2012: It's a crime to display any material containing the name of an elected Michigan official at a polling site; and to display an owner's contact information on a barge.

Oh my.

These laws, and many others, do not require criminal intent, which places individuals at greater risk of being held criminally responsible — even if they had no idea they were violating a law.

State Sen. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, has introduced legislation that would address this problem. His bill would ensure that new laws creating a criminal offense would require a "culpable mental state" (mens rea, in Latin) to establish guilt. Prosecutors would have to show the defendant violated the law intentionally.

But Shirkey's bill doesn't apply retroactively to other laws on the books, so lawmakers must find a way to address current laws — as Ohio did in December.

The report suggests the creation of a legislative task force to tackle overcriminalization and make recommendations to the Legislature, among other measures.

The state needs to make this a priority. No one should have to be treated like a criminal for breaking some law or regulation that he or she had no idea existed.

"We have to have a little faith in our common man," Copland says.

Ingrid Jacques is deputy editorial page editor of The Detroit News.