By JEFF DONN, Associated Press Writer:
(AP) -- The federal government has broadly extended its power in
recent decades to fight common crimes, from murder to unpaid child
support, and critics say needless federal prosecutions waste money,
jeopardize civil rights, and divert law enforcement from true
Such cases "clog the federal courts and utilize very limited federal
resources in matters that are being prosecuted very well by local
authorities," says former U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese, who chaired
a 1998 study sponsored by the American Bar Association.
Others worry about freedoms. "The historical fear against
federalizing crime has always been we don't want a national police
power," said Gerry Moohr, a law professor at the University of
Houston. "We're very near that."
An Associated Press review of the latest government data shows a
sixfold increase in federal spending for criminal justice since 1982.
Washington's share rose from 12 percent to 18 percent of total
justice spending at all levels of government: local, state and
U.S. attorney legal staffs tripled and new yearly caseloads doubled
in the more expensive federal courts.
Yet the trend has gone largely unnoticed beyond legal circles.
Consider the case of Eric King, who would once have been left to the
scrutiny of state law enforcers.
The Dallas mortgage broker, who was said in court papers to earn
around $40,000 annually, had accumulated $331,000 in unpaid child
support over less than eight years. Four years ago, when he had
already negotiated a settlement, federal agents arrested him. He was
prosecuted as a criminal deadbeat.
Even his federal prosecutor, Bill Silverman, acknowledges that some
colleagues believed this kind of case is "sort of beneath the federal
system." Defense appellate lawyer Richard Greenberg adds terms
like "foolish," "high-handed," and "a bad use of resources."
But it was legal. King was charged under a 1992 law making it a
federal crime to dodge child support payments owed in another state.
The law is grounded in the so-called commerce clause of the U.S.
These few words say Congress may "regulate commerce ... among the
several states." The clause has been used to assert federal
jurisdiction over just about any crime when people or goods cross
state borders, whether strictly for business or not.
King's lawyers argued that withheld child support has no important
effect on interstate commerce. A federal judge, Robert W. Sweet,
agreed and dismissed the charges -- only to be overruled on appeal.
Convicted of a felony, King is awaiting sentencing. His lawyer, Ken
Warner, said his client would not comment.
It is unclear, Judge Sweet wrote, why the government even decided to
prosecute King for the settled claim. He noted, however, that
King's "father is a well-known participant in litigation in this
The son of boxing promoter Don King, Eric King had worked for his
father before moving to Texas. King's father -- the pugnacious
wheeler-dealer with the unbending hairdo -- had repeatedly frustrated
the same U.S. attorney's office that prosecuted his son. The father
was acquitted first in a 1985 federal tax-dodging case and then in
1998 on federal charges he cheated an insurer.
Now in private practice, Silverman, who prosecuted the son, denies
using that case to pursue any vendetta or extra publicity flowing
from the King name. He says the federal government simply needs to
help when deadbeat parents live in another state.
Many other common crimes once handled by states -- including rape,
drug trafficking, and murder -- have also come under federal
authority over the years.
Congress has created so many national crimes in so many sections of
legal code that no one has an exact count. There are about 3,500,
according to legal surveys. More than 45 percent have come onto the
books since 1970, around when President Nixon declared the first
national war on crime.
More than 30 federal agencies now have authority to make arrests. In
the latest federal data, the justice work force has doubled since
1982, to 194,000. The number of U.S. attorneys and assistants tripled
to 5,300. They handled 67,000 new criminal cases in 2002 -- more than
twice the number 20 years before.
States also bulked up personnel, spending, caseloads and inmate
populations -- but not as fast as Washington, the AP review shows.
"I'm on the conservative side and normally support law and order, but
the feds are just way out of control," says John S. Baker Jr., a
former congressional aide and local prosecutor who teaches law at
Louisiana State University. "They're alcoholics; you can't stop
Federal criminal law burgeoned through both Republican and Democratic
presidencies. Often, new national law sprang from domestic crises:
the rise in crime rates in the 1980s, the terrorist attacks of 2001.
National emergencies weren't necessary, though. There's hardly a type
of criminal that Congress hasn't targeted in past decades, often by
overwhelming votes with little debate: armed robbers, pimps,
carjackers, along with mileage cheaters (Federal Odometer Act), wife
beaters (Violence Against Women Act) and animal-rights militants
(Animal Enterprise Protection Act).
"It's politically tempting. It's an easy mark," says retired Sen.
Fred Thompson, a Tennessee Republican who chaired the Committee on
Governmental Affairs. "You'll get very little push back from people
who oppose it."
Others defend Congress, even when it acts partly out of symbolism.
"In a democracy, it's appropriate for the federal government to be
most heavily involved in problems that the public views as most
threatening," says Tom Stacy, a law professor at the University of
During the 1960s, for example, federal convictions for civil-rights
violations brought a measure of justice after state juries returned
dubious acquittals in racial violence cases.
As the world changes, new threats arise, so even critics of the
federalizing trend acknowledge a need for federal action in certain
cases to keep pace or fill a gap.
Backers say federalization has promoted efficient use of new
technologies like DNA typing. They view the federal role as essential
in finding terrorists, controlling corporate and computer crime, and
in breaking up sophisticated criminal gangs, which often hide their
money through complex multi-state or international transactions.
Still, there must be limits, critics say.
"The federal system is the Cadillac, and we shouldn't be using it for
off-road driving -- for things for which it is ill-suited," says Paul
Rosenzweig, a researcher with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative
The authors of the U.S. Constitution gave the federal government a
mandate over just a few national crimes, including treason,
counterfeiting and high-seas piracy. In both theory and past
practice, the power to punish local criminals rested predominantly
with the states.
States and local communities still carry that load, at least in terms
of numbers of cases. Though expanded, the federal role in crime
fighting is still spotty.
Consider the Child Support Recovery Act under which King was
convicted. Spurred by reports of tens of thousands of parents
skipping home states to evade payments, Congress clamped down with
federal prison sentences of up to two years. Over the past year, just
260 parents -- an average of five per state -- were prosecuted under
this law, Justice Department data show.
Ronald Goldstock, a former federal inspector general and New York
City prosecutor, said Congress often outlaws "the crime du jour" --
and then quickly moves on.
Some critics want sunset provisions on federal laws so they expire
within a few years, unless shown to be worthwhile.
Others want the courts to more closely scrutinize claims of federal
jurisdiction. In 1995, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that
carrying a gun around a school, however dangerous, was not an act of
More recently, federalization critics have challenged use of the post-
Sept. 11 USA Patriot Act's broadened powers of investigation to chase
more mundane criminals like telemarketing scammers.
Shortly before the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington,
U.S. Rep. Donald Manzullo, an Illinois Republican, offered a bill to
force a federalization review of every proposed crime. It would be
checked for whether it bears on core federal duties and how well it
is already handled by the states.
Now, "other priorities have overtaken this legislation," says
Manzullo spokesman Rich Carter. The bill quietly died.