• The Heritage Network
    • Resize:
    • A
    • A
    • A
  • Donate
  • Bobby Unser vs the Feds

    In 1997 three-time Indy 500 winner Bobby Unser was convicted of a federal crime that exposed him to a $5,000 fine and a six month prison sentence. What did Unser do that so angered the federal government?

    He got lost in a blizzard. That’s it. How did getting lost in a blizzard become a crime? Watch the attached video or click through to Heritage analyst Brian Wash’s Commentary, below:

    What do former Indianapolis 500 champion Bobby Unser and small-businessman Abbie Schoenwetter have in common? Both are victims of “overcriminalization,” a trend that has caused the number of federal laws to spike dramatically in recent decades. And both of these otherwise law-abiding Americans recently told Congress about their experiences.

    Unser and Schoenwetter spoke at a special hearing held by the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security. It was a rare Washington event – a truly bipartisan gathering, convened by Chairman Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Louie Gohmert, R-Texas.

    The term “overcriminalization” may be unfamiliar, but the problem it describes is not. Vague and overbroad laws have become a prevalent part of our legal fabric. In fact, research shows that a single Congress introduces hundreds – and enacts dozens – of non-violent criminal offenses that are poorly drafted, redundant, and lack guilty-mind (“criminal-intent”) safeguards adequate to protect the innocent.

    Equally as disturbing has been the growth of criminal law in areas typically reserved for civil fines and administrative sanctions. Actions not otherwise morally blameworthy have increasingly become the source of criminal sanction.

    The cases of Unser and Schoenwetter are prime examples of such unbridled growth in the criminal law. Unser was convicted of a federal crime for allegedly operating a snowmobile in a national wilderness. If he did indeed enter it, he did so unknowingly while he and a friend were lost for two days and two nights in a ground blizzard.

    Schoenwetter spent five years in prison for “smuggling” lobsters into the U.S. in violation of Honduran fishing regulations, despite the fact that none of the regulations were valid at the time. Until last June, the federal “honest services” fraud statute was also another prime example of overcriminalization. The law criminalizes depriving “another of the intangible right of honest services,” whatever that means. Violations could be punished by up to 20 years in prison. It had been used to charge thousands of individuals across the socioeconomic spectrum until all nine justices of the Supreme Court ruled in a set of three cases in June that the statute was unconstitutionally vague.

    Georgia Thompson, a Wisconsin civil servant, was one such victim. Thompson was charged with “honest services” fraud after she awarded a state contract for travel services to the bidder with the best prices and second-best service rating. Because the “honest services” statute was so flawed, federal prosecutors were able to build their theory of Thompson’s guilt on allegations that she “made her supervisors look good” and thus “improved her job security.”

    Not only did a jury convict Thompson under this preposterous theory, a federal judge denied her motion to overturn the jury’s verdict and sentenced her to four years in federal prison. A federal court of appeals eventually reversed her conviction, but by then Thompson had lost her job, her house, and her good name. She had been driven into bankruptcy and served four months in a federal penitentiary. Most federal officials have never met an overbroad law they didn’t like.

    They don’t see any problem with the “honest services” statute or, for that matter, any other examples of overcriminalization. You can’t blame them for trying; broad, vague laws give them discretion to act as they see fit.

    But if that’s what we want, why not draft a federal statute stating, “All wrongful conduct shall be punished by up to 20 years in prison.”? Such a law would be extremely useful for putting away bad actors. But only those who think that government can do no wrong or who have unlimited confidence in the ethics and good judgment of government officials can fail to see how that statute would be extremely dangerous.

    Fortunately, a wide array of individuals and organizations do understand the dangers of overcriminalization and are promoting sensible, non-partisan ideas for criminal justice reform. The Heritage Foundation, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, American Bar Association, American Civil Liberties Union, Cato Institute, Constitution Project, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Manhattan Institute, National Federation of Independent Businesses, and Washington Legal Foundation are all part of this coalition.

    Several members of this alliance supported the first House Crime Subcommittee hearing in July 2009 on overcriminalization of conduct and the over-federalization of criminal law. A front-page New York Times story late last fall noted that the political Left and Right are coming together to pursue principled criminal-law reform. A recent cover story and editorial in The Economist focused attention on the same problems that are the subject of the upcoming hearing. Americans are learning what criminal-law experts have known for some time: We have far too many criminal laws that serve as traps for the innocent but unwary. It’s high time for the sort of meaningful, across-the-aisle reforms that Reps. Scott and Gohmert will be considering.

    Posted in Legal [slideshow_deploy]

    22 Responses to Bobby Unser vs the Feds

    1. Patriot Come Lately says:

      One of the answers for this "overcriminalization" is a fully informed jury, who CONSTITUTIONALLY can overturn prosecution on any law if they so chose. Most judges and prosecutors are scared to death of this information, in fact some who distribute this have been prosecuted (1st amendment?).

      For more information go to FIJA.org

    2. Anthony Wright, Las says:

      WE have too many laws, regulations and feel good treaties along with oppressive prosecutors eager to take on easy marks. These laws oppress the people in ways that only selective enforcement reveals.

    3. Bobbie says:

      What's freedom if everything is governed by government? It's not. Somebody has to step in and get government out of our freedom.

      None of the acts of these people warrant any federal penalty.

      Bobby Unser was not on private property and the government has no right or reason to penalize. American feds: working to enforce laws that infringe freedom, liberty and justice for all. OVERSTAFFED AND OVERPAID! nothing better for them to do so they OVERSTEP! Who in government allowed and or supports these actions of enforcement and control?

      Isn't laws enforced according to the discretion of government, communism?


    4. Robert, Edmonton Alb says:

      These are the kinds of story that you hear from time to time as happening "to someone else". So you get mad and frustrated but don't take any action, not a criticism just human nature.

      One of the things a despotic regime does is have laws that are so complex and arbitrary that somehow, someway you are guilty of some wrongdoing. That's how they intend to control us.

    5. George Colgrove VA says:

      I think implementing two 15% across the board cuts (ABC) (one for this year and one for next year) will solve this problem. Cutting the FBI by 30% may force them to focus on real crimes rather than invent new ones in order to keep their underworked – overpaid federal workforce busy. They make up terrorist attacks (which they were caught and had to suffer the massive punishment of apologizing to congress) and they work very hard to entice otherwise innocent loners into terrorism, just to arrest them when they finally comply. There are far too many people working for the federal government at an excessively high cost to the taxpayers. Many feds just go idle – waiting for something to do. Cutting the federal government by 30% over 12 months may be all that is necessary to eliminate the need for the feds to over-criminalize just about everything.

      This story is an Obama-nation.

    6. twister says:

      Who to blame for ridiculous Federal laws? You blame the people that are elected to Congress. That's where the changes have to be made.

    7. jweb says:

      The police state is here…Thompson and Unser are both white. Is Aber Schoenwetter white also? I couldn't find any photos of him. It is clear that white people are being targeted.

      After leaving my children's Christmas prefromance, titled "New World Christmas", at my local Charter school (whose curriculum is the same as the public school's), I was pulled over in my housing development for rolling through a stop sign at 6 miles/hour at 9:30pm. The young police officer, with his shaved head and buffed-out body, stated that he normally does not issue a ticket for failure to stop in this developement (the development is over 90% black), but he "wanted to teach me a lesson". When I went to pay the ticket, the clerk raised on eyebrow and stared at me with the "are you serious?" look.

      The plan is to condition the people to accept police state operations. Whether it is by attempts to intimidate, use of National Guard for civilian operations, or survallence. The global elitists fear the people. The American middle class is the only thing standing in their way. I expect a staged "terror" attack by the end of 2012 with a marshall law situation. Mix that with designed dollar collapse…What's your thoughts?

    8. J. B. Williams Evans says:

      Had his name not been Bobby Unser, I am sure they would have let him go. But he was a headliner and they wanted their ruling to be known far and wide. Had they not posted signs, how would he have known where he was. Had there not been a blizzard he would not have gotten lost and not lost his mode of transportaton. If the Supreme Court woun't hear his case, he has no recourse but to start a letter campaign to his Congressmen and get on a news interview show. Other then that, he is screwed glued and tattooed.

      • StevenH says:

        If this is the case, they're showing how stupidity guides their actions. To be exposed for abuse of authority and such a petty waste of legal power. The guy (Unser) almost died, it was a snow storm — has anyone ever been in a snow storm? Getting lost is the FIRST thing that happens in whiteout conditions. If this is the direction our legal system is heading, we are all in deep sh%$.

    9. R Holland, Chandler, says:

      Lord help us.

    10. Joe Lang, Chatham, N says:

      What happened to the basic tenet of our legal system that a person is innocent until proven guilty? Our legal system is becoming an illegal system. Just the fact that the Forest Service policemen did not identify themselves as such when the were first introduced to Bobby Unser should have been enough reason for this case to have been tossed out of court. Every day gives us another example of the way our nation is devolving into some weird replication of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. It is going to take the real Tea Party movement to straighten out the mess in which we find ourselves.

      Joe in Chatham

    11. Greg, Albuquerque says:

      If true as written, these instances are yet again evidence that the government is not to be trusted with ANY DISCRETIONARY leeway when it comes to the law. The ability to destroy a persons life and then not be held culpable provides these people with the ability to intimidate and control the population.

      We must stop this stuff now. We must push for the repeal of such laws and the recall or electoral defeat of all judges and representatives that support such actions.

    12. Steve S. California says:

      I believe that it was Plato who said "One of the penalties you pay for not getting involved in politics is that you will be ruled by your inferiors". I guess that applies to law as well. Some here will decry this statement, at least as long as they believe that they will never be caught in this net. It's true that the way to get the true measure of a person is to give them a little power. The problem with big government is that most folks don't measure up very well. The major divide in this country is between those who accept this truth and those who ignore it.

    13. Leon Lundquist, Dura says:

      In my Book I call these cases Soft Murder. The theory of Soft Murder is that the neocommunists found traditional murder too stinky and too easy to get caught! So now they perform Soft Murders, they just take everything that an American will ever have! That way, they don't have to kill us bad, bad Capitalists! They can just Soft Murder us, and jump for joy, the Progressives get away with it! The point of the story in most cases is that the False Prosecution is adequate to destroy people's lives so that the Commies win either way! They go after all Americans, but they most particularly go after Job Creators. The Dummycrats just hate Entrepreneurs! Hate them! So what we are really looking at here is the Great American Halocaust!

      I was Soft Murdered for saving girls from Gang Attack! For saving lives and harming nobody! They smeared me with a Felony for the same Misdemeanor that the girl was found innocent of, Fighting. They wanted to put me away for Twenty Years for miraculously saving a life! This is Abuse of Power, but increasingly the Government is criminalizing everything! Thank you Heritage Foundation for the publicity, but can you actually get these Traitors to stop going after Americans? You have to Prosecute False Prosecutions they do. You have to Prosecute Treason! You have to Prosecute High Crimes! Look! Obama is running a Dictatorship in the Administration! He is going after Americans for nothing, for Thought Crimes! You can't stop it without Impeachment!

    14. Elizabeth Farrar says:

      Yes, the justice system is like the Mad Hatter's tea party. We have had a U.S. Supreme Court tell everyone it is okay for law enforcement to lie to get a statement, they changed Miranda warnings last yr, etc…..most judges do the best they can w/crminal court but the lower courts have been turned into "Mickey Mouse" arenas and the case can be brought back by a higher court for prosecution after being dismissed below, don't even get me started on the imprisonment of so many that accomplishes only one thing…if in for life or killed they will not reoffend outside prison walls. Now overcrminalization of civil and administrative offenses is going as nutty as the Mad Hatter and has been for sometime. These examples like Mr. Unser are barely a dot on the iceberg. I say let's only go by the Constiution, return education to the local family and folks, and only support a defense of the country with tax dollars.

    15. Bobbie says:

      Leon, I am deeply saddened by the wrong and inept judgment of authority. I thank you for the man you are and the strength of endurance you have. There's always a right and wrong but we're being led by those that want to confuse them. God Bless!

    16. Old Folks Georgia says:

      The saddest thing about this is that the people mentioned, Abbie Schoenwetter, Bobby Unser & Georgia Thompson in this article as well as Krister Evertson and George Norris who testified in the first hearing, are suffering the effective civil death penalty associated with a federal felony conviction. While many of the politicians have suggested that overcriminalization be "fixed" none offered any recourse for the victims of overcriminalization.

      Legislation such as Congressman Rangel's "Second Chance For Ex-Offenders Act" and Congressman Cohen's "Fresh start Act" that would allow people such as these to make application for expungement of their "criminal" record have never made it out of committee. The very same committee that has been so vocal about "overcriminalization".

    17. Dyann, Burnsville, M says:

      What a farce our judicial system has become. I wonder if someone from our Federal Government is going to come to my house and arrest me for exerting my right to free speech, because it doesn't make them "look very good", even though it appears to be the truth. Hmmmm! (I hope the word 'farce' is not a bad word for communication; our illustrious 'leaders' have used it on television so I guess it is ok.

    18. Nick Aruzmek Detriot says:

      I agree with Partiot Come Lately. A fully informed jury using the power of jury nullifficationis great. However, most jurys are made up of people who know nothing of the law or are civil servants… conflict of interest?

      The two party system and courts are rigged so winning in the name of our constitutional freedoms is bleak at best.

      Yet here we have millions of people here in this country illegally and the government refuses to go after these people.

      I'm waiting for the day when the people will rise up and revolt.

      Viva La Revolution!

    19. Pingback: Wall Street Journal Exposes Federal Overcriminalization

    20. Pingback: Wall Street Journal Exposes Federal Overcriminalization | The Conservative Papers

    21. Pingback: Poster's Paradise » Ayn was right!

    Comments are subject to approval and moderation. We remind everyone that The Heritage Foundation promotes a civil society where ideas and debate flourish. Please be respectful of each other and the subjects of any criticism. While we may not always agree on policy, we should all agree that being appropriately informed is everyone's intention visiting this site. Profanity, lewdness, personal attacks, and other forms of incivility will not be tolerated. Please keep your thoughts brief and avoid ALL CAPS. While we respect your first amendment rights, we are obligated to our readers to maintain these standards. Thanks for joining the conversation.

    Big Government Is NOT the Answer

    Your tax dollars are being spent on programs that we really don't need.

    I Agree I Disagree ×

    Get Heritage In Your Inbox — FREE!

    Heritage Foundation e-mails keep you updated on the ongoing policy battles in Washington and around the country.