The Washington Times Daily - - OPINION - Ed Feul­ner is founder of the Her­itage Foun­da­tion (her­itage.org).

et’s not make a fed­eral case out of this.” Nearly all of us have heard some­one say some­thing like this at one time or an­other. And it used to mean some­thing. Not any­more.

This bit of sar­casm, af­ter all, is meant to im­ply that the per­son you’re talk­ing to is tak­ing some rel­a­tively small mat­ter and mak­ing too big a deal out of it. Only the most se­ri­ous crimes rise to the level of fed­eral law, right?

Wel­come to the 21st cen­tury. To­day more than 300,000 fed­eral crim­i­nal laws are on the books. There are so many, in fact, that stat­ing the ex­act num­ber is im­pos­si­ble. No one knows for sure how many there are.

“They are pub­lished in the bow­els of the fed­eral reg­is­ter — the place where few peo­ple out­side of law firms and ma­jor cor­po­ra­tions look to find laws — and are of­ten drafted in am­bigu­ous and of­ten hy­per-tech­ni­cal lan­guage that can’t be un­der­stood,” writes John-Michael Seibler, a le­gal fel­low in the Ed­win Meese III Cen­ter for Le­gal and Ju­di­cial Stud­ies.

In short, you could be break­ing a fed­eral law and not even know it. And the fact that you didn’t know you were do­ing so, or didn’t in­tend to break the law, would make no dif­fer­ence.

But still, you may be think­ing, th­ese crimes must be pretty bad. Well, let’s see. Has your dog ever barked at a squir­rel? Depend­ing on where the squir­rel is, you may be in trou­ble. It’s a fed­eral crime to al­low a pet to make a noise that scares wildlife within a na­tional park.

Let’s say you work at an ice cream shop, and you put a few too many drops of wine into a wine sor­bet that’s for sale. Uh-oh. That, too, is a fed­eral of­fense, pun­ish­able by up to one year in jail and fines of up to $1,000.

The list goes on, many of them amus­ingly ridicu­lous. But to the peo­ple who get caught — or­di­nary, oth­er­wise law-abid­ing Amer­i­cans who had no idea they were flout­ing any law, fed­eral or oth­er­wise — it’s no laugh­ing mat­ter.

Ask Wy­oming welder Andy John­son. His mis­deed? He built a stock pond on his eight-acre farm. The En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency pro­ceeded to fine him $16 mil­lion, or $37,500 a day.

Mr. Seibler lists sev­eral other fed­eral of­fenses that have ap­peared on the Twit­ter page “A Crime a Day.” Th­ese in­clude:

• Mak­ing it a crime to sell mixed nuts if the nuts pic­tured on the la­bel aren’t in de­creas­ing weight or­der.

• Mak­ing it a fed­eral crime to let small cigars leave the cigar fac­tory un­less they’re la­beled “small” or “lit­tle.”

• Mak­ing it a crime for am­a­teur ra­dio op­er­a­tors to sell am­a­teur ra­dio equip­ment, and us­ing am­a­teur ra­dio too of­ten.

• Mak­ing it a fed­eral crime for the op­er­a­tor of a wharf to let his long­shore­men use com­mon drink­ing cups.

And this is just the tip of the ice­berg. Thou­sands of other crimes are on the books, wait­ing to be dis­cov­ered by some un­sus­pect­ing Amer­i­can who breaks them.

It’s ob­vi­ous that some­thing needs to be done to re­duce the scope and reach of what ex­perts in this area of­ten call “over-crim­i­nal­iza­tion.” We need to dis­tin­guish be­tween in­no­cent mis­takes and de­lib­er­ate crimes.

In 1925, Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” was pub­lished. It tells the story of a man pros­e­cuted by an in­ac­ces­si­ble au­thor­ity for a crime whose na­ture is never re­vealed to him.

To­day that work of fic­tion has be­come dis­turbingly close to re­al­ity. It’s time to de­clare a mis-“Trial” — and re­store com­mon sense to fed­eral law.

Let’s say you work at an ice cream shop, and you put a few too many drops of wine into a wine sor­bet that’s for sale. Uhoh. That, too, is a fed­eral of­fense

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