The incessant expansion of federal criminal law continues. Federal prosecutors now insist that telling almost any lie is a federal felony punishable by five years imprisonment.
I have previously written here at The Legal Pulse about the plight of Cory King, the Idaho farmer convicted of felony violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act. King was convicted for injecting melting snows into his irrigation wells to ensure that there was enough water for his crops later in the summer. That charge was bad enough, given the absence of evidence that the well injections caused any environmental damage. But prosecutors also charged King with violating the federal “material false statement” statute, even though he never spoke with any federal officials about his irrigation practices.
According to 18 U.S.C. § 1001, it is a federal crime to make a materially false statement “in any matter within the jurisdiction of” the federal government. The statute traditionally has been used to prosecute those who lie during official government proceedings, in documents they submit to the federal government, or in conversations with federal investigators.
Cory King did none of those things. Instead, when speaking on one occasion to an employee of the State of Idaho – an employee whose job responsibilities had nothing to do with safe drinking water or the regulations of wells – King denied that he was injecting snow melt into his wells. The employee did not believe King, and he went to state water officials and the federal EPA with his suspicions. When EPA later began an investigation, King was completely honest in answering questions from EPA officials. He was nonetheless convicted of violating § 1001, based on his single conversation with the Idaho employee.
Federal prosecutors take the position that King’s statement to the Idaho employee was a “matter within the jurisdiction” of the federal government because the Safe Drinking Water Act gives EPA authority to regulate wells. They insist that King’s statement was a federal crime even though EPA was not investigating King at the time he made his statement and even though it was made to an individual with no authority (under either federal or Idaho law) to investigate King’s irrigation practices. It is enough, prosecutors insist, that the general subject matter of the statement touched on an area subject to federal regulation.
Keep that in mind the next time you are speaking with your neighbor. Anything you say about the environment, publicly traded securities, or prescription drugs could become the basis for a federal false statement prosecution. Frightening.
Washington Legal Foundation is assisting King in his appeal from the § 1001 conviction, as well as his conviction under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Let’s hope that the appeals court recognizes what prosecutors do not: that a “matter within the jurisdiction” of the federal government does not include everyday conversations in which the federal government has no role.