Ticketing Children for Selling Lemonade Highlights Overcriminalization Problem
Some Louisianan children recently opened a lemonade stand and were ticketed for operating a business without an occupational license or paying taxes on their earnings.
This not only highlights the absurdity of criminalizing children who
were too young to obtain an occupational license or to even pay
taxes—but also illustrates how unpredictable enforcement of arcane
criminal laws and regulations are just part of doing business for many
long-time business owners.
State legislators rushed a responsive bill
to the governor’s desk to exempt minors “earning less than $500” a year
from the regulatory hurdles. Because, state Sen. Gary Smith asked, “Why would you ticket a child for an activity that promotes entrepreneurship and a work ethic?”
The question should be: Why would we want to ticket an activity that promotes entrepreneurship and work ethic for any American?
A recent symposium hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute
for Legal Reform and the National Association of Criminal Defense
Lawyers furthered the national conversation on how overcriminalization
threatens economic opportunity—from children with lemonade stands to bakers with a 100-year-old family business, custodians to engineers—and harms, sometimes ruins, innocent people’s lives in the process.
describes the trend to use the criminal law rather than the civil law
to solve every problem, to punish every mistake, and to compel
compliance with regulatory objectives. Criminal law should be used only
if a person intentionally flouts the law or engages in conduct that is
morally blameworthy or dangerous.
As symposium participants affirmed, government officials too often abuse the criminal law.
Honest workers are “dazed and confused,” said attorney Reginald J.
Brown; dazed because they are paying through the nose to remain
compliant, and confused because “they want to do the right thing, but
they don’t know what that is.”
Part of their peril
is that Congress passes vague laws, regulators play fast and loose with
the details, and prosecutors can bend the meaning of laws to fit acts
that Congress may not have intended to criminalize.
A family of bakers in Connecticut, for example, “had no idea what structuring
was” until IRS agents stormed their business, seized the cash in their
bank accounts, and charged them with the criminal offense.
After engineer Kurt Mix
spent 90 days capping the flow of oil in BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill,
armed federal agents raided his home and investigators poured through
his emails, text messages, and voice messages, all to drum up criminal
charges in the wake of the clean-up. After five years and millions of
tax dollars, federal prosecutors charged Mix and his colleagues with
dozens of felony charges, but failed to obtain a conviction. Prosecutors
ultimately pressured Mix into pleading guilty to a single misdemeanor
When asked what he learned from his experience with the Justice Department, Mix answers:
“It gives me great concern for the future, especially a
future crisis. Will the best people respond? Will the safest and most
expedited solution be found? Will they be allowed to work as we did in
an open, transparent, collaborative, spontaneous environment? Or will
they spend all of their time looking over their shoulder and creating a
record for when the Department of Justice comes calling?”
Current government practices of overregulation and overcriminalization are destroying chances for opportunity and prosperity.
Just ask any of these individuals who faced the threat of criminal prosecution and substantial fines for their actions:
- An 11-year-old girl who saved a baby bird;
- A farmer who built a stock pond;
- Or a lobsterman who shipped lobster in plastic instead of cardboard in alleged violation of Honduran law.
At the symposium, former federal prosecutor turned criminal defense
lawyer John F. Lauro said that “with enough time, subpoenas, [and] FBI
investigators,” anyone could be charged with “crimes they can’t even
Legislators are pushing to reform
the criminal code. Until the Congress and senior Justice Department
officials act on that initiative, “everybody’s at risk,” said Lauro, and
the “collateral damage in all this is the individuals who work at these