When Burt Rico was caught using a deer feeder equipped with lights while hunting in Louisiana, he was slapped with a $1,051 fine and sentenced to 60 days in jail. He was cited for hunting without a big-game license, failing to wear hunter orange and hunting deer with an artificial light.
Until he was cited, he didn’t know he had done anything wrong, he claims.
Rico’s case isn’t an isolated one. According to a new report by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, thousands of people are being prosecuted for environmental crimes every day they didn’t know were even on the books. They’ve been threatened, fined and thrown in jail. The trend is especially prominent along the Gulf Coast, but is becoming a national issue.
In Texas, there are 11 felonies relating to harvesting oysters that can land a person in prison for a decade. In the Carolinas, government officials have cracked down on fishermen -- both commercial and sport -- and in some cases cut off their ability to make a living.
“There isn’t a day I go out where a rule, law or regulation is not broken,” Capt. Terrell Gould told FoxNews.com.
As head of a family-run business in North Carolina that takes customers on deep-sea fishing trips, Gould is just one of a growing group who say they have suffered at the hands of regulators imposing stiff fines and disproportionate penalties. The government tells him when, where and what he can catch.
“Total control of your life – that’s what they want,” said Gould. “You take away the incentive for somebody to do something bit by bit by bit. It’s like peeling the layers off an onion. You can only peel so much and then you don’t have any onion left.”
The growing web of laws that can land unwitting violators in jail is commonly referred to as "overcriminalization." These are not laws prohibiting fundamentally wrong behavior like murder or rape. Critics say these laws create offenses that violators often don't realize are illegal until it's too late.
Punishment can range from a few hundred dollars in fees to lengthy prison terms. Some say the extraordinary expansion of the criminal code on federal, state and local levels leaves the public exposed to abuse at the hands of officials.
When it comes to environmental laws, the states getting hit the hardest are the five that border the Gulf of Mexico -- Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Among them, nearly 1,000 laws criminalizing activities along the coast have been put on the books, Texas Public Policy Foundation analyst Vikrant Reddy said.
While there is no concrete figure, there are an estimated 300,000-400,000 environmental laws, statutes and mandates believed to be in circulation nationally. Many can land a person in prison, regardless of whether another person, plant or animal is harmed.
In Louisiana alone, there are more than 280 offenses relating to hunting, fishing and wildlife that could get a person locked up for a long time. If a shrimper in the state picks up another person’s broken crab trap and throws it away on land, he or she could be sent to prison for two months. If it happens more than once, there is a mandatory prison stay.
In Alabama, getting rid of scrap tires in an “unauthorized” manner is considered a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
In Mississippi, a person can spend six months in the slammer for “wounding, drowning, shooting, capturing, taking or otherwise killing any deer from a boat.”
The onslaught of environmental laws has clogged the legal system and pitted residents against powerful prosecutors. The vagueness and overreach of the laws can be staggering, Reddy told FoxNews.com.
Many people who are prosecuted lack the funds to mount a decent legal defense. Some say they have been forced to sell their homes and businesses and have spent years on the losing end of litigation. For others, the easiest course for some has been to plead guilty and do their time behind bars. But being labeled a felon can leave a lasting mark on someone’s professional and personal reputation. Trying to find a job, buy a home or buy a car becomes more difficult.
Part of the problem is that no one knows the total number of federal criminal laws on the books. Big and bulky, the federal criminal code is chock full of obtuse and obscure laws.
“You will have died and resurrected three times,” and still be trying to figure out the answer, retired Justice Department official Ronald Gainer once told The Wall Street Journal in a report about the bloated volumes of criminal law.
Anthony Overton, an associate professor at East Carolina University, says there may be a method behind the madness.
Ovterton said that many of the laws that don’t make sense to most people are in fact logical to local communities.
“Many of these laws, as absurd as they seem, target a localized problem,” he said. “You can’t shoot a deer from a boat. That probably happens a lot in Mississippi where someone is going down the river and sees a boat on someone’s property and starts shooting."
But in his book “Three Felonies a Day,” Boston-based attorney Harvey Silverglate says criminal laws have become dangerously disconnected and that prosecutors can pin crimes on anyone.