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How Many Felonies Did You Commit Today? An Interview with Harvey Silverglate

Ulrich Boser 21

Every day, the average American commits three felonies. So argues civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate in his new book “Three Felonies a Day,” the title of which refers to the number of crimes he estimates that Americans perpetrate each day because of vague and overly burdensome laws.

In his book, Silverglate posits that federal criminal laws have become dangerously disconnected from legal tradition and that prosecutors can now pin crimes on anyone for almost nothing at all. The problem, he says, is modern criminal laws, which have exploded in number and become impossibly broad and vague.

I don’t know if I buy all of Silverglate’s arguments. Some seem a touch overblown, and conceptually, I don’t believe all of his exceptions make the rule. And there is something to be said for laws that improve social policy, even if we think they’re overly intrusive or burdensome. For instance, I don’t like speed limits. Indeed, I probably go over the speed limit every time I take the car out. But the data strongly show that speed limits save lives–they generally make us go slower, a good thing.

Still, Silveglate’s thesis is important and well-argued, and he shows without question that some laws have become painfully vague. And while his book occasionally reads more like a legal treatise than a popular text, it’s one that prosecutors should be forced to read, if only to understand how easy it is to go too far.

I emailed Silverglate a few questions recently. His answers are below.

Why did you decide to write this book?

Sometime in the mid-1980s I started to notice a change in the nature of the federal criminal prosecutions that I was handling during the course of my criminal defense and civil liberties law practice. I started to represent more and more indicted clients where neither I nor other lawyers in my firm could figure out quite what the client/defendant had done to deserve to get indicted (or, if we got the case pre-indictment, what the client had done to get investigated or targeted). The client’s conduct seems to me to conform to normal standards and expectations, even if sometimes a bit aggressive or “sharp.” I started to keep notes on this phenomenon.

As the years wore on, the problems got more frequent and more acute. I was representing more and more federal criminal defendants who had done the deeds charged against them, but I did not deem what they did to constitute a crime. In the late 1990s I co-authored another long-gestating book, The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses, about disciplinary proceedings on college campuses on the basis of vague speech codes. I vowed that someday I would write a book on this other phenomenon of federal criminal prosecutions on the basis of vague statutes, directed against innocent people.

Why is it important? 

As a civil liberties matter, a government which has the ability to prosecute innocent citizens at will, is a government which has achieved the power that has characterized all tyrannical governments throughout history. Such prosecutions, because they can be pre-textual, tend to fly under society’s and the news media’s radar. Professor Alan Dershowitz has written a trenchant Foreword to my book, in which he notes how the Soviet system of “justice” used this technique to control and terrorize dissidents. Indeed, post-Soviet Russia uses the same techniques today – using bogus “tax” prosecutions to imprison critics of the regime. In my view, this is a crucial civil liberties issue, and I’ve seen no one else write about it in any kind of systematic fashion, and so I’ve undertaken to do it. My book could not be written by a scholar or a law professor, but only by a practitioner.

How did the Code of Federal Regulations grow into such a morass?

More and more responsibility for defining and elucidating the law was put, by the Congress, into the hands of bureaucrats, and the inevitable has occurred.

Can you walk me through how exactly you estimated that someone commits three felonies a day? 

The “three felonies a day” is really a figure of speech, hardly an exact count. People who are very active in certain fields likely commit more than three arguable federal felonies a day. People who are less active in life and in commerce probably commit fewer. I would imagine that lawyers, accountants, and securities dealers commit more, while fruit-stand vendors commit fewer. But my point was that an active member of our society goes about his or her busy workday not realizing the potential for committing arguable federal felonies in a wide variety of business and personal endeavors on a typical day.

Do you think that there a danger that federal laws can be too specific? That if a law is too particular about details, that someone guilty might be let off on a technicality? 

In the first place, I do believe that it is better that a few miscreants go free than that an innocent person be convicted.

Second, if an action is sufficiently bad, then Congress can simply outlaw it in terms sufficiently clear so that ordinary people understand what they may not do. There is surely a golden mean between being too general and too specific. After all, our state common law systems manage to enact and enforce criminal laws that are fairly well understood by the populace. But the federal criminal law is divorced from our common law traditions, and we are suffering the consequences.

Third, a central problem with federal criminal law – especially the laws that fall most frequently in the category of prosecutions I criticize in my book – is that our fraud statutes focus upon the means rather than the substance of a crime. We have, for example, “mail fraud” – fraud committed by the use of the mails. Or “wire fraud” – fraud committed by the use of the means of interstate communications (phone, email). Or “securities fraud” – fraud committed in connection with the purchase or sale of securities. But these statutes do not define what “fraud” means! And often Congress, at the urging of the executive branch and of federal prosecutors, has intentionally kept such definitions vague. See, for example, my discussion in my book, at pp. 114-122, of the federal government’s intentional effort to keep the “insider trading” laws and definitions vague, so that they can prosecute whomever or whatever seems appropriate at the time. This is a veritable formula for tyranny.

What can be done to reform the system? 
I have devoted nearly my entire book to exposing the problem, but only a few pages are devoted to suggesting the remedies in general terms. I do not propose remedies, but instead, I propose directions in which we have to travel and coalitions that we have to create to fight this largely under-the-surface tyranny. I decided to do what I do best – tell the world what I’ve learned, from my experience, is going on. I want to start a public discussion. From that discussion, I believe remedies will emerge. That’s what democracy is all about, after all.


This item originally appeared in The Open Case magazine.

  1. Dr. RJ NIcholas Dr. RJ NIcholas

    “too” far not “to” far

  2. Anonymous Anonymous

    I’m glad I found this today.

    Only commenting to offset the grammer nazi above.

    • Robert French Robert French

      Correcting grammar in a published piece is appropriate. However this is very interesting.

      • Anonymous Anonymous

        I agree

      • Josh Blau Josh Blau

        I feel the need to correct your punctuation in a published piece because that is also appropriate. You should have put a comma after the word however at the beginning of your second sentence. The author also forgot the word is in his question asking if there is a danger of federal laws being too specific. Please don’t try correcting grammar unless you are observant enough to play arm chair editor and can notice all grammar mistakes. Is, in that sentence, is a pretty simple example.

      • Josh Blau Josh Blau

        I feel the need to correct your punctuation in a published piece because that is also appropriate. You should have put a comma after the word however at the beginning of your second sentence. The author also forgot the word is in his question asking if there is a danger of federal laws being too specific. Please don’t try correcting grammar unless you are observant enough to play arm chair editor and can notice all grammar mistakes. Is, in that sentence, is a pretty simple example. I left you with a mistake or two in my own response just to see if you are observant enough to redeem yourself.

  3. Anonymous Anonymous

    Oh, and it’s “grammar”, not “grammer”. 🙂

    • A A

      In article 3247134857438925w3535253454 of the United States Constitution, it states that insulting someones grammar is illegal. Sorry bro

      • Anonymous Anonymous

        A Felony that’s far out man.

  4. Miss Miss

    Grammar natzi???

  5. Anonymous Anonymous

    how do we stop it

      • Anonymous Anonymous

        Since trump took power theres been a policy of repealing 2 things for every new thing introduced. Maybe this is too far and allows important things to be repealed, but if something new thats important gets passed, that’s opporunity to not necessarily fix the entire problem at once, but just find two random things that are obviously stupid and remove them.

    • Marshall Marshall

      Another point not covered by the authors is that very few Federal laws and regulations include a provision that the culprit must have knowingly and intentionally violated the law for gain. Almost all state laws require that a suspect must have known and understood the law and violated it intentionally for some specific reason in order to be charged and convicted. This also gets to the point about the (literally!) tens of thousands of federal laws and hundreds of thousands of pages of regulations in the CFR many of which contradict each other and almost all of which “link” to each other for definitions. A professional, like an accountant or a doctor, doesn’t have to intentionally violate a Federal law or regulation – or even KNOW about the law – in order to be investigated, charged and convicted by aggressive Federal prosecutors.

    • Another point not addressed in the brief above is that Federal laws and regulations do not require that the suspect intentionally violate or even know about the law that they violated. It’s not just that the laws are so vague that nobody can understand them, or that there are so many no one could possibly know about them all. So one solution would be for Congress to pass a law (or for the Supreme Court to hand down a ruling) requiring that the accused must have known about the law and intentionally violated for a specific reason before she can be charged or convicted of a Federal crime.

  6. Anonymous Anonymous

    No example of these felonies??

    • P.P. Taype P.P. Taype

      Well, two of them are spelling things wrong and incorrect grammar.

    • One example given in the book was a celebrity who went snowmobiling on his own property and a sudden blizzard caught him by surprise and almost killed him. In the process of struggling to find his way home he unintentionally crossed over into a national forest. Snowmobiling in a national forest without permission is a Federal crime. A more egregious example in the book was a highly-regarded expert on pain medicine who prescribed an opioid analgesic for a patient, who then sold some of the medication on the street. An overly zealous Federal prosecutor, wanting to make a name for himself, advance his career in the government and send a message to pain specialists and doctors in general extorted a confession from the patient alleging that the doctor knew the patient was selling his prescription medication and prescribed it anyway (i.e. “pill mill”) – the doctor’s career was destroyed, he was bankrupted trying to defend himself and he was not even found guilty.

  7. Anonymous Anonymous

    “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.” So don’t claim you didn’t know the law — I’ve been stopped for speeding when I honestly thought the speed limit was higher than it was. I should have known better.
    Intent is a much better defense. People violate obscure laws frequently without intending to and without receiving any benefit (or causing any harm) from the violation.

  8. Scott Miller Scott Miller

    The author seems skeptical, which is okay, but then offers the speed limit example. Speeding is not, to the best of my knowledge, a felony nor is it enforced by the federal govt in most cases-exceptions being govt property like military bases. Also, when you speed, you know full well what you are doing and that you are breaking the law, knowing that you risk a ticket that is probably not going to be life changing.
    The book is about complex federal regulations that most people will not know about and have no reason to suspect they exist, and could result in a felony conviction that strips you of civil rights for the rest of your life, along with hefty fines and jail. Not at all like speeding.

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