Home inFocus Campaign Season ­­– Issues on the Trail (Summer 2016) Time to Prune: Repeal Unnecessary Criminal Laws

Time to Prune: Repeal Unnecessary Criminal Laws

John-Michael Seibler and Paul J. Larkin Jr. Summer 2016
Senate Judiciary Committee Room.

Flowers may die, and old soldiers may fade away, but statutes do neither. They may become obsolete or fall into desuetude, a legal term used to describe anachronistic and rarely (if ever) enforced laws, but they retain their force and effect until repealed by the legislature or held unconstitutional by the courts.

Our federal criminal code contains more than 4,000 criminal laws, many of which are now obsolete, or were never worth much to start with. They include the following:

  •  It is a crime to make unauthorized use of the 4-H club emblem, the Swiss Confederation coat of arms, and the “Smokey Bear” or “Woodsy Owl” characters;
  •  It is a crime to misuse the slogan “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute”;
  •  It is a crime to poll a service member before an election;
  •  It is a crime to transport dentures across state lines;
  •  It is a crime to sell malt liquor labeled “pre-war strength”;
  •  It is a crime to write a check for an amount less than $1; and (a personal favorite)
  •  It is a crime to install a toilet that uses too much water per flush.

American officials have begun to consider how to trim our criminal code. Members in both houses of the 114th Congress have introduced bills that would reform federal criminal law. The bills include a long-needed default criminal intent (mens rea) standard and different methods for reviewing and repealing unnecessary criminal statutes. The latter bills—H.R. 4003 and H.R. 4023—indicate that Congress might address the desuetude problem as well as the related problem of “overcriminalization,” a neologism describing a surfeit of criminal statutes and the unreasonable use of the criminal law when civil or administrative remedies are more appropriate. Two of the pending bills propose useful models for the identification and repeal of unnecessary criminal laws.

The Constitutional Lawmaking Process

Criminal statutes almost never come with an expiration date, and lawmakers never repeal outdated laws. Consider some of the vice laws from the 19th and early 20th centuries, still on the books today, that prohibit the use of interstate commerce to promote a state-run lottery. Congress enacted those laws because state-run gambling was then deemed immoral. Today, however, most Americans no longer find state lotteries objectionable. In fact, numerous states operate lotteries to raise public funds, and the public seems more willing to allow people to gamble than to see their taxes raised. Similarly, a 19th century law, the Comstock Act, prohibited the distribution in interstate commerce of pamphlets or circulars advertising contraceptive products. Today, the public uses contraceptives on a widespread basis, and that practice is protected by the Constitution.

"It is a crime to misuse the slogan 'Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute' or make unauthorized use of 'Woodsy Owl.'”
“It is a crime to misuse the slogan ‘Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute’ or make unauthorized use of ‘Woodsy Owl.’”

Unless Congress revisits the federal criminal code, the number of archaic criminal laws will increase inexorably over time. That is true for two reasons.

First, for the past 40 years, the federal government has displayed the unfortunate tendency to use the criminal law “to punish every mistake, and to compel compliance with regulatory objectives.” The prodigious growth of America’s federal criminal code testifies to this problem. That collection has expanded from the small number of core federal crimes needed in the nation’s early days to what is now more than 4,000 offenses. Over the past 30 years, Congress has enacted as many as 60 new federal crimes per year and 500 per decade. Even if every one of those criminal laws was necessary when it was adopted—and statutes like the federal carjacking act seem to prove the contrary—there is no reason to assume that those statutes will continue to play a vital role in the criminal law 50 years (or more) from now.

Second, only Congress can enact or repeal a federal criminal law. The Bicameralism and Presentment Clauses of Article I of the Constitution define the process by which the federal government can enact a law. Because Congress consists of both a Senate and House of Representatives, both chambers must cooperate in the legislative process. To exercise its “legislative power” and create a “Law,” each chamber must pass the identical bill and present it to the President for his signature or veto. The president then must sign it, or both houses must repass it by a two-thirds vote following a veto. Once a bill has become a law, Congress and the president must follow the same procedure to revise or repeal it.

The federal courts cannot play a supporting role in the enactment or repeal of a federal criminal law. In 1812, early in the tenure of Chief Justice John Marshall, the Supreme Court held in United States v. Hudson that the federal courts couldn’t create criminal offenses; that is Congress’s prerogative. What is true at the front end is also true at the back end. Sixty years ago, the Supreme Court explained in District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co. that only Congress could repeal a criminal law. That is true, the court explained, even when a law has fallen into desuetude. “The failure of the executive branch to enforce a law does not result in its modification or repeal…. The repeal of laws is as much a legislative function as their enactment.”

The Problems Created by Outdated Laws

If criminal statutes were like museum statues whose purpose is merely to represent life in a bygone era like Prohibition, the continued presence of those laws on the statute books might offend a contemporary sense of feng shui, but would not create practical problems for the public. Statutes and statues, however, are materially different. A criminal law enacted by the First Congress that still can be found in the United States Code continues to outlaw and punish the same defined conduct today, regardless of whether the reason why that act was adopted has become unimportant or has been long forgotten. The statute may have fallen into desuetude, but it remains good law. As the Supreme Court explained in John R. Thompson Co., the executive branch’s refusal to enforce a statute, for however long, leaves that law on the books, and the courts must apply it. Federal courts are not free to disregard laws that have fallen into desuetude.

The continued presence of archaic criminal laws on statute books can create a serious problem for the public. An elementary rule of constitutional law is that the government must afford the public fair notice of the conduct defined as criminal so that the average person, without resort to legal advice, can comply with the law. The resurrection and enforcement of outmoded, rarely enforced, or never-enforced criminal laws raises a notice problem.

Most people are not lawyers, so they do not acquire their understanding of the law through formal education or hands-on experience. They learn what the criminal law forbids from their parents, ministers, teachers, the scriptures, and others in their community. Their knowledge extends to what the moral code puts out of bounds, but it does not stop there. They also come to learn how the law is enforced—that is, which laws are enforced strictly (e.g., murder or rape) or laxly (e.g., speed limits or bans on jaywalking).

Resurrecting a statute that has long been dead could trip up the average person whose intent is to comply with the law, because no one would reasonably know what that statute forbids.

Two Pending Bills Could Repeal Unnecessary Federal Laws

History shows that legislators occasionally do repeal unnecessary criminal laws. Congress repealed the Sedition Act, the Volstead Act (a Prohibition-Era law), and a national speed limit after recognizing that the laws were no longer necessary.

Two bills pending before the 114th Congress would follow in those footsteps. The Clean Up the Code Act of 2015, H.R. 4023, would repeal a few specific federal statutes that attach criminal penalties to trivial conduct, such as the seven noted earlier, laws that are “obsolete, superfluous, and unnecessary.” The Regulatory Reporting Act of 2015, H.R. 4003, goes much further. It would require each federal agency to provide the House and Senate Judiciary Committees with a list of and justification for all rules and regulations that carry criminal penalties. The bill directs Congress to scrutinize those rules under these specific criteria:

(1) Why civil penalties are inadequate to deter the regulated behavior. (2) What mens rea or criminal intent is required for criminal liability arising from a violation of the rule. (3) What notice is provided to persons subject to the rule that a violation of the rule may result in criminal penalties. (4) If the rule applies to all persons, including natural persons as well as corporations and other business associations. (5) If a violation of the rule is likely to result in any of the following (and if so, how): (A) Substantial bodily injury or death to another person. (B) Property damage or destruction. (C) Harm to public safety. (D) Harm to national security. (E) Fraud against the United States.

Those criteria would help to ensure that Congress uses the criminal law, rather than civil or administrative penalties, only when strictly necessary and only in connection with subjects that the federal government alone is best equipped to handle. If Congress required federal agencies to answer those questions, and if Congress required Members to do the same when introducing new criminal laws, Congress could avoid enacting any laws that would be better executed by states or through the civil legal system

The Overcriminalization Task Force Should Continue to Operate

In May 2013, the House Judiciary Committee chartered an Overcriminalization Task Force to review the federal criminal code and recommend how it could be improved. The task force did not issue a formal report outlining its recommendations, but two of its members introduced a bill—the Sensenbrenner–Scott Over-Criminalization Task Force Safe, Accountable, Fair, Effective Justice Reinvestment Act of 2015—to reform the criminal justice system to “improve public safety, accountability, transparency, and respect for federalism in Federal criminal law.” The bill, however, did not identify any specific federal criminal laws that should be repealed, and the task force has since disbanded, its legislative mandate expired.

One of the best ways to improve the code would be to reduce its size. Congress should re-establish the Overcriminalization Task Force to assume that job and proceed along two tracks:

• Follow the approach taken in the Clean Up the Code Act of 2015 by identifying for repeal particular federal criminal statutes widely deemed unnecessary.

• Use the criteria specified by the Regulatory Reporting Act of 2015 to review the entire federal criminal code and recommend the repeal of additional unnecessary statutes.

The House Judiciary Committee should direct the task force to undertake both assignments and complete them by the end of this Congress. The Senate Judiciary Committee should create its own task force for the same purposes and should instruct it to complete that task before this Congress adjourns. Each committee should then take up the recommendations early in the 115th Congress so that there will be adequate time for debate both at the committee level and on the floor of each chamber.

Paths to Repeal: A Piecemeal Repeal Process

The Clean Up the Code Act of 2015 addresses overcriminalization on a piecemeal basis. Members of Congress have previously tried to approach this problem on a similar statute-by-statute basis by recommending the repeal of particular sections in discrete criminal laws that are no longer necessary or that create needless problems. An example is the Lacey Act, which makes it a crime to import flora and fauna in violation of a foreign nation’s laws.

The federal criminal code is also due—some would argue long overdue—for a “spring cleaning.” Repealing anachronistic criminal statutes one or a few at a time would help to reduce overcriminalization, but such a piecemeal approach would take a considerable amount of time. Accordingly, while Congress can and should pursue the path taken by the Clean Up the Code Act of 2015, it should also use the criteria listed in the Regulatory Reporting Act of 2015 in deciding what criminal laws should be jettisoned.

A Bulk Repeal Process

Because the entire federal criminal code contains obsolete, “redundant, superfluous, and unnecessary criminal laws,” Congress should consider identifying large swaths of such provisions and repealing all of them at one time.

Congress should begin by directing the Department of Justice to compile a list of all federal criminal laws and to supply information regarding how often each statute has formed the basis for a criminal charge. Congress could impose a similar requirement on all federal agencies.

Both requirements are part of current bills pending in the House and Senate. Only the Justice Department can bring criminal prosecutions, but agencies have the authority to promulgate regulations defining terms in statutes used in criminal prosecutions. A collection of all relevant regulations is necessary because estimates of the number of relevant rules exceed 300,000, a number far too high for any layperson to be able to run down. The Senate and House task forces can use those lists to decide what is and is not necessary for federal criminal law.

In the meantime, Congress could turn that list of statutes into an act of Congress and add it to Title 18 of the U.S. Code, the location where federal crimes belong. Doing so would collect all federal criminal law in one location for use by both the bar and the public.

Those paths to decriminalization are not mutually exclusive. Congress should pursue each one and should use all of the tools at its disposal to trim the federal criminal code.


The federal criminal code is long overdue for a “spring cleaning.” The explosive growth of federal criminal law requires legislative attention because people expect that certain conduct is a crime and other conduct is not. Leaving statutes that long ago lost resonance with the moral judgment of a community on the books, still available for use by creative and overzealous prosecutors, gives rise to a lack of notice and unfair selection.

Only Congress has the constitutional authority to repeal those laws. Common sense demands that legislators should exercise that prerogative.