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Report says Michigan is 'overcriminalized'

Every once in a while, there is a news report about strange, obscure laws that remain on the books in Michigan or elsewhere. These stories are typically humorous, because they deal with laws that come from the 19th Century, or make seemingly old-fashioned actions a crime.

These laws are good for a laugh, because few of us are at risk of accidentally breaking them and facing prosecution. But other statutes indeed can affect our lives and lead to serious criminal charges. Especially here: Michigan lawmakers have quietly built one of the longest criminal codes in the Midwest.

According to a report from the Manhattan Institute and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Michigan’s criminal code is 918 sections long, more than twice as large as Ohio’s and Wisconsin’s. And lawmakers have quietly created an average of 45 new crimes each year, so this massive code is not simply a matter of dusty old laws not getting taken off the books.

They say ignorance of the law is no excuse. But many new crimes do not have intent as an element. In other words, people in Michigan sometimes do something they do not realize is a crime, or even questionable, and end up facing incarceration, a huge fine, or both.

One Michigan man was sentenced to 270 days behind bars and fined $10,000 for unlawful disposal of tires. He took the tires to a facility he believed to be legal, but the facility did not have a license. In another case, authorities charged a woman with operating an illegal daycare. The woman was charged for volunteering to help her neighbor’s children get on the school bus in the morning.

The report calls this phenomenon “overcriminalization.” Whatever you call it, the size of Michigan’s criminal code means that anyone could someday find themselves unwittingly facing the wrath of law enforcement.

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