How Many Laws Have You Broken Today?

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If you’re like
most Americans, you violate numerous laws each day, probably without
even knowing it.

As I wrote
in a blog entry nearly three years ago, in New Jersey, you can be
arrested for driving by your own home. In Florida, a man was sentenced
to six years in prison for carrying cash. In Pennsylvania, a woman
faces prison for yelling obscenities at her clogged toilet. You
can even be imprisoned for the crime of withdrawing lawfully earned
currency from your own bank account.

Over the past
three years, the trend toward what I call "criminalization"
of everyday conduct has only intensified. (Criminalization is the
conversion of conduct that was once considered a contractual dispute,
or merely socially stigmatized, into a criminal offense.)

Now, according
to federal prosecutors in New Jersey, violating a Web site’s "terms
of service" constitutes a crime. Under this interpretation,
if you disregard – or simply fail to read (or understand) the
lengthy and legalistic service agreement of any Web site, you risk
imprisonment!

The defendants
in this case purchased tickets in bulk from an online ticket reselling
business, Wiseguy Tickets. They stand accused of reselling the tickets
at a higher price, in violation of Wiseguy’s terms of service. Prosecutors
also brought hacking charges against the defendants for bypassing
technical measures to prevent bulk purchases. But it’s the criminalization
of violating a Web site’s terms of service that concerns me the
most.

Most Web sites
say they can change their terms of service anytime. To avoid prosecution
under this theory, you’d need to read a multiple pages of legalese
every time you log in to your favorite Web site. Even entering a
fake name on a social networking Web site may be a crime! Federal
prosecutors in Los Angeles indicted a woman because she violated
a social network’s terms of service. Fortunately, the trial judge
threw out the case.

And there’s
no reason why this trend is limited to the online world. Imagine
that you purchase a new car from your local dealer. You drive it
for a few months, never bothering to read the terms of service in
the back of the manual. One day you get pulled over for a traffic
ticket. The cop asks you where you buy your gas. "From wherever
it’s cheapest," you reply. "Wrong answer," says the
cop, as he puts you in handcuffs. It turns out that the terms of
service stipulate that you must purchase all your gas from a specific
gas station recommended by the dealer. If you don’t, under the DOJ’s
latest pet theory of criminalization, you’d be committing a crime.

Naturally,
there’s no way that police can arrest you every time you knowingly
or unknowingly violate the terms of service for an online – or
offline – product or service. But the potential for arrest is
always there, giving prosecutors wide discretion in pursuing the
most visible – or more likely, the most politically viable – of
such "crimes."

The trend won’t
reverse itself until we convince lawmakers that criminal sanctions
aren’t necessarily the best way to deal with moral, social, or political
problems and disputes. Let’s hope that time comes soon – although
I’m not holding my breath!

August
20, 2010

Mark Nestmann is a journalist with more than 20
years of investigative experience and is a charter member of The
Sovereign Society's Council of Experts. He has authored over a dozen
books and many additional reports on wealth preservation, privacy
and offshore investing. Mark serves as president of his own international
consulting firm, The Nestmann Group, Ltd. The Nestmann Group provides
international wealth preservation services for high-net worth individuals.
Mark is an Associate Member of the American Bar Association (member
of subcommittee on Foreign Activities of U.S. Taxpayers, Committee
on Taxation) and member of the Society of Professional Journalists.
In 2005, he was awarded a Masters of Laws (LL.M) degree in international
tax law at the Vienna (Austria) University of Economics and Business
Administration.

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