From Lobster Importing to Prison: A Story of Violation

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Imagine being imprisoned for six and half years of your life, for violating an obscure law that you didn’t even know existed. Now, imagine that this law wasn’t even a law of the United States, but of a foreign country.

That wouldn’t happen, you say? Think again.

Meet Abner Schoenwetter. Schoenwetter ran a business importing lobster for 12 years, until one day he was charged with a criminal offense and put in jail for the next six and a half years of his life. What happened?

Schoenwetter and his team had made a deal with an exporter from Honduras, and were about to receive a shipment of 70,000 lbs of lobster, when the National Marine Fishery Service (NMFS) and U.S. Customs stopped them from unloading the lobster on Schoenwetter’s pier. The NMFS told Schoenwetter that they didn’t know why they were stopping him, but that they were ordered to do so. Schoenwetter was confused because he and his team had already cleared customs and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on that particular shipment.

Turns out, the NMFS had launched an investigation of the Honduran lobster shipment based on an anonymous fax which warned that the shipment was violating Honduran laws; including laws about proper packaging and the mixing of undersized tails with the rest of the shipment.

At first, the case was declared a civil matter, but Schoenwetter soon found out that the federal government was developing a criminal case against him. Members of the FBI, the IRS, the NMFS, and U.S. Customs raided Schoenwetter’s home, bearing guns.

Schoenwetter was charged with violating the Lacey Act, which basically says that if you violate the wildlife laws in another country, then the U.S. can charge you in this country. The law in question was that the lobster was not packaged correctly; the exporter had them packaged in plastic bags, but Honduran law says they must be packaged in cardboard boxes.

So, Schoenwetter fought the case in court. Even the Honduran Attorney General came forward with a written statement defending Schoenwetter. The statement said that the laws of Honduras were not applicable to Schoenwetter’s case, and that they were invalid laws.

Nevertheless, Schoenwetter was found guilty and sentenced to eight years in prison. The Supreme Court would not hear his case and his appeals were exhausted. South Carolina judges decided to let Schoenwetter out of prison early, so he only served six and a half of those eight years in jail. After he got out of prison, he was then put on probation for three years.

Abner Schoenwetter’s family was destroyed; his business failed, his family had to struggle economically, and for the rest of his life he now has a criminal record.

His life and his family were destroyed for what? Inadvertently and unknowingly violating the laws of Honduras by packaging lobster tails the wrong way; which, by the way, was the procedure that Schoenwetter had used to package lobster for the 12 years he had been in business.

This case doesn’t scream, freest nation on Earth, to me, I don’t know about anyone else. Schoenwetter’s case is a perfect example of over-criminalization, over regulation, over prosecution, etc. We should all be greatly concerned when a citizen of the United States is thrown in jail for some obscure, non-violent offense that isn’t even a United States law!

While watching Abner Schoenwetter’s testimony, something that he said struck me. He said, “In my mind now, the worst thing that anybody can do to you, is take away your freedom.” The loss of freedom in all forms is a terrible thing, which is why it’s such a powerful punishment, and also a powerful tool of oppression and control.

To make things worse, lobster importers aren’t the only ones whose freedoms are being violated. There are plenty of sickening examples of big government rules and regulations stealing the livelihood of innocent Americans. Whether it is through excessive fines or imprisonment, there is serious reason for concern here.

America claims to be the freest nation on earth. She better start acting like it.

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