Energy & Environment

Congress Looks to Rewrite Act That Led to Gibson Guitar Raid

Lawmakers are reviewing legislation to amend a century-old law that led to a raid by armed federal agents at the Gibson Guitar Company in August 2011 at its Nashville and Memphis factories and, in a separate case, to the imprisonment of two Americans for importing improperly packaged lobsters.

Critics of the Lacey Act say it is being used to enforce laws of foreign governments that most Americans are not aware of, and that it is too broad and too vague to carry harsh criminal penalties.

“That really smacks at our sovereignty,” Sen. Rand Paul (R –Ky.) told the House Resources subcommittee on fisheries, wildlife, oceans and insular affairs. “How can this possibly be constitutional?” asked Paul, who is sponsoring the Senate version of the Freedom from Over-Criminalization and Unjust Seizures Act (FOCUS) with Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.). The measure would strip language requiring Americans to comply with foreign laws and repeal criminal penalties.

Relief Act also under scrutiny

A second bill under examination is the Retailers and Entertainers Lacey Implementation and Enforcement Fairness Act (RELIEF) authored by Rep. Jim Cooper (R-Tenn.). The full committee has not set a date to mark up either piece of legislation, which received mixed reviews during it’s first Capitol Hill hearing last week.

Jeffrey “Skunk” Baxter, a guitarist for Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers, among other bands, testified in favor of Cooper’s bill and said the Lacey Act carries “unintended consequences” that will have a negative impact on the music industry and “could harm our cultural heritage.”

However, Adam Gardner, Frontman of the musical group Guster, opposed both bills and said supporters are using “misleading claims.”

“The rationale that RELIEF advocates put forth for these sweeping changes is that Lacey poses a threat to musicians. This is simply not the truth,” Gardner said. “No individual has ever been investigated or had their instrument taken under the Lacey Act.”

Republicans on the panel told Gardner that under the current law, the seller as well as the buyer are liable and that federal agents do have the authority to seize a musicians’ personal instrument.

“All I know is that I’m not concerned about it,” Gardner said. “There is a clear history of this not happening. It’s not the practice to go after (musicians) with the limited resources (the government) has.”

Federal agents confiscated a half-million dollars worth of property from Gibson Guitar in the August raid, including guitars and computers. The company did not import banned wood products, but is accused of violating a law in India that requires the wood product be finished by workers in that country before it can be exported. The Department of Justice has yet to file any charges. In a civil case, Gibson is attempting to get its wood back.

Six years in federal prison

Additionally, Abner Schoenwetter and David McNab spent six years in federal prison, accused of violating Honduran fishing regulations. The lobsters they received should have been shipped in plastic, rather than cardboard, boxes.

Republicans said that as currently written, the Lacey Act is a frightening example of over-criminalization. “I’m very disturbed by the whole idea that citizens or companies must know the laws of another country and must also comply with those laws,” said Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), subcommittee chairman. “I find that amazing and question whether it is even constitutional.”

The Lacey Act was signed into law in 1900 to make poaching a federal law, and carried a fine rather than imprisonment if violated. The act was amended by Congress in 1981 and again in 2008, and has since become the “poster child for how the federal government abuses its power and has developed a system of sweeping criminalization,” Broun said.

Today, the Lacey Act makes it a crime to import or take any wildlife, fish or plant in violation of a foreign law. “The Lacey Act is no longer about conservation. American citizens now face prosecution based upon foreign laws and regulations that are concerned only with labor-management relations, with minimum wage rules, or with tax laws, and that can be ambiguous in nature. U.S. importers have been turned into policemen, who are responsible for knowing a myriad of foreign laws that are simply impossible to keep track of,” Broun said.

Democrats said they opposed amending the law for fear that it would also lift a ban on importing wood that was illegally cut. A spokeswoman for big furniture retailer IKEA, Laurie Everill, told the panel that the only way the proposed bills will carry any credibility is with the endorsement of environmental groups, which is unlikely at this point.