The overcriminalization of white collar crime in Texas

Thanks to widespread ambiguity in federal codes, white collar crime is often unfairly prosecuted and carries overly harsh sentences.

A Texas man sold services and products to a Missouri-based business he was employed with, through a company he founded. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the man passed those goods and services off as his own when he had actually ordered them elsewhere and re-sold them at an inflated price. In June of this year, he was convicted of embezzlement and ordered to forfeit $105,000, pay $1.3 million in restitution, and serve three years in prison without parole.

While white collar crime in Texas and around the country does occur, the penalties associated with it have largely been criticized. In many cases, prosecutors try to stretch the laws in order to get the most severe sentences possible - even when they may not be merited.

What is overcriminalization?

Overcriminalization refers to an abuse in which laws are either misused or overused. For example, laws that are overly vague enable prosecutors and judges to take advantage of the situation and seek the strongest possible charges and sentences. As The Heritage Foundation points out, new and often superfluous laws at the federal level make it possible for someone to commit a white collar crime without even knowing it or having the intention of doing so. Those people are then unfairly held to the same standards as defendants who knowingly committed the wrongdoing.

How does it happen?

The rate at which the code of laws is growing is also problematic. The Heritage Foundation reports that on average, Congress passes a law outlining a new crime every week. For example, in 2008, there were more than 4,450 laws concerning white collar crimes, compared to the 3,000 that existed in 1985.

The explosion of the federal code is just one portion of the overcriminalization problem. Harm also takes place when the following occurs:

  • Crimes that should be tried at the state level are elevated to the federal level.
  • Lawmakers create mandatory minimum sentences that do not fit the crime.
  • Statues begin to overlap each other, causing confusion and, sometimes, contradiction.

In one study researchers found that three out of five non-violent offenses introduced to the criminal code lack the appropriate mens rea, or criminal intention, requirements.

White collar penalties in Texas

Most crimes associated with white collar activities - such as embezzlement and fraud - are pursued as felonies in Texas and have extreme consequences. For example, under the law, a theft is considered a first-degree felony when more than $200,000 is stolen. That type of crime comes with a maximum sentence of 99 years in prison.

Additionally, many white collar crimes are elevated to the federal level, where the sentences are even more severe as judges often have more flexibility. This happens when someone breaks a federal law, which is easier to do as Congress continues to add more criminal offenses.

Without restraint, lawmakers could continue to add ambiguous legislation that unfairly targets those accused of white collar activity. People who are facing such charges should immediately contact an attorney.

Keywords: white collar, crime, defense, fraud, embezzlement