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New Crimes Mean More Criminals: Colorado has plenty of both already

Opinion Editorial
July 21, 2005

Author: Mike Krause and Chelsea Johnson

On July 1, several dozen of the more than 400 new laws passed by the 2005 Colorado Legislature went into effect. Some of these laws are changes and updates, while others actually advance personal freedoms. But the Legislature also managed to create more new crimes where no actual criminal behavior exists.

The Legislature’s expansion of “public welfare” lawmaking, which criminalizes conduct not inherently wrong, but wrong due to a legislative declaration (malum prohibitum) has increased dramatically over the last 50 years. The Legislature should put the crime creation business on hold for at least a couple of sessions.

Colorado already has some 30,000 laws taking up a dozen volumes of statutes; more than enough to ensure no one knows if one is in compliance or not.

This in turn has placed excessive burdens on the criminal justice system. Colorado’s prison population has more than doubled over the last decade, and local jails operate beyond capacity throughout the state.

Police agencies from the Routt County Sheriff’s Office to the Denver Police Department, claim to be under-staffed and overworked, while the court system is overburdened and backlogged; in 2004, there were over 10,700 adult criminal case filings in Colorado courts just for drug cases, still only one quarter of criminal case filings.

There are plenty of crimes and criminals in Colorado. So why does the Legislature insist on creating yet more of both?

All the basic violent crimes–murder, rape, assault and robbery–have long been on the books, as have theft, trespassing, and other property crimes, and while technology has created new ways to commit fraud or embezzlement, the basic elements of these financial crimes have remained unchanged from the days of common law.

Since real crimes against people and property have long been codified, legislators now have to satisfy themselves with passing “public welfare” laws in pursuit of some perceived public benefit.

The creation of yet more crimes, however, has failed to bring about an end to these old, most important crimes. In fact, major crimes in Colorado increased by almost 9 percent in 2004. Homicide alone increased by 18.5 percent.

New crimes do however increase demands on police, the courts, and the public; creating new criminals, while at the same time delivering often dubious benefits.

For instance, Senate Bill 36 makes it a crime in Colorado for newly licensed teenaged drivers to carry passengers under the age of 21 (except siblings) for the first six months. They can carry just one teenaged passenger during the next six months.

In reality, criminalizing teenagers riding in cars will actually create new scofflaws (those teens who will certainly ignore the new law), while at the same time ensuring that there will be more inexperienced teenage drivers on the road than ever before.

For example, where a group of four 16-year-old friends might carpool to high school, or several teens ride-share to part time jobs at the local mall, the law now demands they all drive separately, or find another means of getting to class or work.

If the Legislative logic behind the law holds true, the new school year will actually mean less safe roads for the rest of us.

Another example is Senate Bill 34, which criminalizes the sale or use of AWOL (Alcohol Without Liquid) devices, by which alcohol is ingested in a vapor, rather than liquid form. The Legislature panicked over AWOL because alcohol is absorbed through blood vessels in the nose or lungs “creating a more intense high’ or intoxicating effect on the brain.”

But according to AWOL’s American distributor (awolusa.com), there is a “built-in safety device because it takes about 20 minutes to inhale one vaporizer shot of alcohol (about 1/2 actual shot size).” That equals one and a half full shots per hour. In 20 minutes, an ambitious college freshman can throw back a half-dozen or more full shots of liquor the old-fashioned way.

In other words, Colorado legislators made a crime out of a potentially safer alternative to catching a buzz than an open bar at a political fundraiser or drinking shots at a fraternity party.

The sheer number of such “public welfare” laws on the books makes it impossible to enforce these laws consistently. And since a sense of right and wrong is no longer a guide to remaining a law-abiding citizen, the average Coloradoan has no hope of complying with all of them. This breeds a lack of respect for the rule of law itself.

Next time someone tells you, “There ought to be a law,” remind them that there probably already is one.