Boston criminal lawyer Kevin J. Mahoney on the Prosecution of Retiree Selling Orchids
Who knew that importing and selling orchids could be a federal offense? Certainly Texas retiree George Norris didn’t. Not content to spend his new-found free time watching reruns on television or sitting in a bar, Mr. Norris decided to put his free time into a business. One would think he was masterminding a plot against the government: his orchid business led to a two-year prison sentence.
The orchid enterprise was a success. George Norris cultivated the plants, as well as imported interesting varieties that he knew would sell well. Nothing he did was illegal—none of the plants were smuggled into the country, and none were carriers of insects whose introduction into the U.S. might lead to a wide-spread decimation of agriculture. Nothing he did was illegal, save fail to have proper documentation for some of the orchids he imported. As a result, federal SWAT agents swarmed the retiree’s house, frightened his wife, and ransacked the property in a fervent search for anything that could put the miscreant grandfather of eight away in prison.
The agents were not from Homeland Security, either—they were from the Fish and Wildlife Service. Isn’t that the same service Yogi Bear’s would-be nemesis, Ranger Smith, belonged to? Yet now, instead of roaming camp grounds to make sure that guests aren’t lighting dangerous fires, Ranger Smith dons combat gear and harasses upstanding citizens. Who is the next victim, Eliza Doolittle?
A bi-partisan congressional hearing into over-criminalization was the only positive outcome of Mr. Norris’ ordeal. Speakers addressed concerns about the great number of criminal laws that are so generally written that they could apply to most anyone—even if no criminal intent existed. The notion of mens rea, the guilty mind, it seems, is becoming a relic of an America where one actually had to commit a legitimate crime to be put behind bars. The implications for all of us should be disturbing, indeed.
Meanwhile, George Norris spent two long years in a federal penitentiary. For anyone this would be among the most difficult and frightening prospects, but his situation was even worse: he suffers from diabetes, coronary disease, arthritis and Parkinson’s disease.
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