Since he was sworn into the Senate in 2011, Senator Rand Paul (R–KY) has consistently fought against overcriminalization, a term used to describe the use of criminal penalties to punish morally blameless conduct. Conduct that was not a crime in the past—and perhaps not a violation of any law—is now punished with time in prison.
Senator Paul has spent his time in the Senate educating people on the issue of overcriminalization, blocking legislation with overcriminalization elements, and proposing solutions to the overcriminalization problem. Paul should be applauded for his efforts.
In the early hours of the morning of September 22, 2012, the Senate was finishing up its pre-election business as usual, which entailed quickly passing several bills via unanimous consent agreement to keep the federal government funded. One of these bills, the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2012, is much less pernicious than it might have been thanks to the work of Senator Paul.
One section of the bill, "International Fisheries Stewardship and Enforcement," was identical to a Senate bill of the same name (the International Fisheries Stewardship and Enforcement Act, or IFSEA) that likely did not have enough votes to pass as a stand-alone bill. However, "business as usual" in the Senate often entails Senators trying to shovel bills such as the IFSEA into other bills which are considered "must-pass legislation," such as the Coast Guard Authorization Act. In the end, Paul brought the Senate to a screeching halt to keep IFSEA from being enacted as part of the Coast Guard Authorization Act.
IFSEA would have added civil and criminal penalties for actions that are already penalized under 12 existing statutes. Existing criminal penalties would have increased from six months to five years in prison for simply catching the wrong type or number of fish. Additionally, IFSEA would have created an "International Fisheries Enforcement Program" and given the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) an additional $30 million per year to implement the program. NOAA has a history of abusive enforcement and has threatened fishermen, marine biologists, and others with fines and prison time in order partially to fund itself.
Senator Paul's opposition to IFSEA was a matter of principle. IFSEA would have had little affect on his constituency—Kentucky is landlocked.
The FOCUS Act. The Lacey Act makes it a criminal offense in this country to import flora or fauna in violation of another nation's laws. Thus, under the Lacey Act, in addition to the estimated 4,500 U.S. criminal laws and numerous criminal regulations, Americans are now responsible for knowing the laws of foreign countries, even when those statutes are often written in foreign languages.
The Lacey Act has damaged the lives of numerous citizens. It sent one man to federal prison for six years because the lobsters he imported were a little too small, and he wrapped them in plastic instead of paper. It also prompted federal agents to raid Gibson Guitar for the wood it imported from Indonesia.
In response to these injustices, Senator Paul introduced the Freedom from Over-Criminalization and Unjust Seizures (FOCUS) Act of 2012, which would decriminalize any violations of the Lacey Act so that any violation of the act would be punishable with civil penalties only. This would, in effect, protect U.S. citizens from imprisonment merely for violating a foreign law that has no U.S. counterpart.
Special interest groups have kept the FOCUS Act from becoming law, but Paul keeps fighting the good fight.