The weekend forecast calls for sunny skies, so you decide to have a picnic in a national park with your family. After finishing your meal you throw away your trash. Your son, however, isn’t so careful — he leaves behind a few leftover items. As you leave your picnic area, a park ranger asks if you or your family has left trash in the area. You tell him that you’ve cleaned up after yourself.
You’ve just committed an arguable federal felony: False Statements to a Federal Official. Any false statement made to a government official — even when it is made in conversation and not under oath nor in writing — can leave a citizen vulnerable to a “false statement” charge.
That many seem absurd, but as civil rights lawyer Harvey A. Silvergate notes, this hypothetical example has real-life parallels. Overcriminalization and an increase in vague regulations have made most of us unknowing and unintentional felons.
This wasn’t always the case. Under the common law, criminal intent — an intention to commit a crime or violate a law — was a necessary element of every crime. Most statutory laws also require criminal intent. However, as William J. Sloan explains,