Tlingit clans used to control the hunting and trade of sea otters and other wild game in their territory. Now it the Federal Government regulates it, and restricts who it may be sold to and in what form.
As Federal Crime List Grows, Threshold of Guilt Declines
By GARY FIELDS And JOHN R. EMSHWILLER
For centuries, a bedrock principle of criminal law has held that people must know they are doing something wrong before they can be found guilty. The concept is known as mens rea, Latin for a “guilty mind.”
This legal protection is now being eroded as the U.S. federal criminal code dramatically swells. In recent decades, Congress has repeatedly crafted laws that weaken or disregard the notion of criminal intent. Today not only are there thousands more criminal laws than before, but it is easier to fall afoul of them.
As a result, what once might have been considered simply a mistake is now sometimes punishable by jail time. When the police came to Wade Martin’s home in Sitka, Alaska, in 2003, he says he had no idea why. Under an exemption to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, coastal Native Alaskans such as Mr. Martin are allowed to trap and hunt species that others can’t. That included the 10 sea otters he had recently sold for $50 apiece.
The Hunt for Sea Otters
Wade Martin and Peter Williams scan the waters for sea otters about a mile off the coast of Sitka, Alaska.
Mr. Martin, 50 years old, readily admitted making the sale. “Then, they told me the buyer wasn’t a native,” he recalls.
The law requires that animals sold to non-Native Alaskans be converted into handicrafts. He knew the law, Mr. Martin said, and he had thought the buyer was Native Alaskan.
He pleaded guilty in 2008. The government didn’t have to prove he knew his conduct was illegal, his lawyer told him. They merely had to show he had made the sale.
“I was thinking, damn, my life’s over,” Mr. Martin says.
Federal magistrate Judge John Roberts gave him two years’ probation and a $1,000 fine. He told the trapper: “You’re responsible for the actions that you take.”
Mr. Martin now asks customers to prove their heritage and residency. “You get real smart after they come to your house and arrest you and make you feel like Charles Manson,” he says.