Keeping US Safe From Plastic-packed Lobster Tails

Complexity of laws leading to "over-criminalization" of America?

Diane Huang, a small business owner from New Jersey, is scheduled to enter federal prison on July 21, where she will begin serving a two-year sentence for purchasing undersized lobster tails shipped in clear plastic bags.

Under the Lacey Act, a U.S. law, it is illegal to take wildlife in violation of foreign law. The lobsters Ms. Huang purchased violated obscure laws of Honduras because they were shipped in clear plastic bags, rather than opaque cardboard boxes, and a small percentage of the lobsters did not measure to 5.5 inches in length.

In 1999, Huang was charged with a felony count of conspiracy to smuggle (Huang was in the supply chain, having purchased the "unlawful" lobster tails). However, the Honduran laws, which served as the basis for the U.S. government's case against Ms. Huang, are no longer valid – a fact the government of Honduras pointed out when it filed an amicus brief with both the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court. Huang's conviction along with those of three others, were upheld in March 2003.

Commenting on the plight of Huang, National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) Legal Foundation Executive Director Karen Harned said, "Sharing stories like that of Diane Huang can go far in shedding light on the dark corner of government prosecution. But perhaps just as significant is that Diane's story serves as an example of how easily the life of a small-business owner can be turned upside down by the more than 4,000 separate federal criminal offenses on the books that could send any small-business owner to the same place Diane Huang is going – prison."

Describing the effect of cases like Huang's, Harned said, "It's clear that as the complexity of the law increases, small-business owners need easy-to-understand guidance on legal issues. But unlike large corporations with well-staffed compliance departments full of lawyers, that's a luxury small-business owners can't afford."

While the NFIB Legal Foundation and others like it provide some legal education services, Harned added, "When criminal offenses affecting small businesses account for tens of thousands of pages of the U.S. Code, it's clear that foundations alone can't solve the core problem – the over-criminalization of America. After all, hasn't the government gone too far when we require small businesses, under threat of criminal prosecution, to monitor Honduran fishermen? Is there no end to the sea of bureaucrats eager to transform well-meaning small-business owners into criminals? Sadly, in the case of Diane Huang, the answer is no."

To this day, Huang maintains her innocence. She remains hopeful that small-business owners will continue to work together to bring about changes in the legal system that foster a climate for businesses to succeed, without leaving them vulnerable to manipulative and overzealous prosecutors.

[Source: National Federation of Independent Business]