Three fish nearly cost John Yates 20 years in prison.

Yates makes his living as a commercial fisherman. In 2007 he was fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. A state wildlife official boarded Yates’ vessel and determined that 72 red groupers (of a 3,000-fish catch) were undersized, issued a civil citation and ordered the fish to be confiscated. When Yates returned to port, armed agents inspected his catch and found only 69 undersized fish.

Nearly three years later, federal agents arrested Yates at his home and charged him with violating the Sarbanes-Oxley Act’s anti-shredding rules (yes, the post-Enron Sarbanes-Oxley Act) a crime that carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. His crime? Throwing three undersized fish overboard. Yates was prosecuted and convicted of having destroyed evidence. Yates fights on; his case reached the U.S. Supreme Court in November 2014.

Yates’ case represents much more than the proper interpretation of federal financial regulations. Civil liberties groups, libertarians and conservatives are joining forces to confront the problem of “overcriminalization,” taking on both the sheer volume of laws and the troubling trend of imposing severe criminal sanctions on behavior that simply isn’t wrong.

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Consider the well-publicized plight of Lisa Snyder, from Middleville, Mich. In 2009, she agreed to watch several neighbor children in the morning before the school bus arrived. The Department of Human Services accused Snyder of running an illegal daycare — a misdemeanor publishable with jail time. That situation was resolved without incarcerating the neighborly Mrs. Snyder, but it required an act of the Michigan Legislature. 

Like many states, Michigan’s criminal code is overpopulated. A study we recently co-published with the Manhattan Institute identified more than 3,100 crimes, with the Legislature creating an average of 45 new crimes annually. Many of these laws do not require a prosecutor to prove criminal intent on the part of the accused.

Some of Michigan’s laws are obscure or downright silly. You are a criminal if you transport a Christmas tree without a bill of sale, curse or blaspheme, cause a pet ferret discomfort, sell artificially dyed ducklings or rabbits, mock a person for refusing to duel, or dance to “The Star Spangled Banner.” Other laws may be justified but carry heavy penalties; Sparta businessman Alan Taylor was charged with a wetlands violation and was ordered to pay $8,500 in fines for expanding his company’s parking lot.

It’s time for Michigan to tackle the problem of overcriminalization. There’s progress on that front; Rep. Joe Haveman, R-Holland, is leading an important effort to reform sentencing and probation guidelines, Rep. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, recently introduced a bill that addresses criminal intent and Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, is fighting civil asset forfeiture.