Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


Ignorance of the 4 new laws a day is no excuse

Code-of-Hammurabi.jpgThe lead of this story caught my eye:

(CNN) — Legislatures in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico met in 2009, leading to the enactment of 40,697 laws, many of which take effect January 1.

That’s an average of 753 laws passed in each of those jurisdictions. At 200 working days in a year, which is normal for you and me, that’s nearly 4 laws per day.

Now, there’s a longstanding principle of law, which is that ignorance of the law is no excuse. That goes back to the day when laws, like the code of Hammurabi, were inscribed at a rate of about 4 letters per day. The laws were posted in the city center where both of the literate people could read them.

Joking aside, at what point does knowledge of the law become an unreasonable demand on the citizenry? Civil rights lawyer Harvey Silvergate has a new book, “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent. I haven’t read it, but as I understand, it’s largely about the proliferation of vague laws, not the sheer numbers.

A few years back, Aleecia McDonald and Lorrie Cranor calculated the cost of reading and understanding the privacy policies of the sites you visit. It was $365 billion. It might be interesting to apply the same approach to the work of legislatures.

4 comments on "Ignorance of the 4 new laws a day is no excuse"

  • Jack Lloyd says:

    What makes this trend particularly troubling to me is the interaction with prosecutorial discretion; I break a law I don’t know about, and the prosecutor lets it slide with a wink and a nod; you break the same law and get nailed to a wall. In effect it lets corrupt judicial officials use the law as a weapon against people and organizations they don’t like, instead of being an instrument of impartial justice.
    I would bet heavily that if every law on the books in the US could be 100% enforced for all infractions, at least 3/4 of the population would be in prison as felons right now.

  • beri says:

    We should be grateful that most of the people who are supposed to enforce the laws are too lazy or corrupt to do so. Efficient government enforcement of laws is scary; look at Nazi Germany and Communist Russia.

  • Nicko says:

    Adam, while I agree wholeheartedly with your conclusions I have issue with your math. Five days a week and two weeks vacation is 250 working days, not 200, so it’s only three laws a day not four!

  • Doug says:

    I wish our legislators and fellow voters would care about the relationship between new laws and liberty. Whenever a law restricts or requires actions of the citizenry, it takes a brick out of the wall of liberty. That wall gets lower everyday. As an example, soon it will be illegal to live in this nation without buying something from a private company.
    Liberty in this country is a rapidly diminishing luxury.

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