Some politicians have framed this fall’s general elections in dire terms, saying if America doesn’t get it right, it could be the end of freedom as we know it.
But some stories CBN News has learned about suggest freedom may already be long gone.
CBN News is launching a series of investigations into a growing phenomenon called “overcriminalization” and how it’s making America a nation of criminals.
On the surface, Lawrence Lewis looks like a model American citizen. He escaped life in the inner city and has held down two jobs most of his adult life while trying to provide for his family.
“I wanted my family to have things I didn’t have growing up,” he told CBN News.
Caring for his 96-year-old mother and two daughters, he made it his life goal to prove to himself and his children that it’s possible to avoid becoming another statistic caught up in the criminal justice system.
In the end, he failed — without even knowing he was doing anything wrong.
“If you would ask me this before that day, would I plead guilty to something I didn’t do, I’d tell you it’s impossible,” he said.
Lewis’s Nightmare Begins
Lewis’s nightmare started when he was the chief engineer at Knollwood, a military retirement home in Washington, D.C. — a job he loved until it put him on the wrong side of the law.
Lewis said the home occasionally dealt with a backed-up sewage system. When it happened, he did what he’d been shown to do when he was first hired and what had been done years before he even got there.
He and his staff diverted the backed-up system to a nearby storm drain they thought emptied into the city’s sewer system. But they were wrong.
“They said… we trying to determine if we’re going to arrest me tonight. And I said, arrest me for what?”
The diverted waste ended up in a creek that flows into the Potomac River. That meant Lewis, while on the job, violated the Clean Water Act.
It’s a federal statute that comes with a hefty fine and, for him, the possibility of five years in prison unless he implicated his bosses — something he refused to do.
“I couldn’t believe that I was born and raised in the projects and I worked so hard to get out that situation and build a professional career and here I am at work getting arrested for something I had no idea was wrong,” Lewis said.
Faced with the possibility of being locked up, his attorney advised him to plead guilty. Lewis wanted to fight but eventually gave up.
“I ended up having to do that for one reason: My kids and my momma wouldn’t have [anywhere] to live,” he explained. “A five-year prison sentence — they wouldn’t have anywhere to live.”
More Common Than You Think
If you think Lewis’s story is one of a kind, you’re wrong. Experts say virtually anyone can fall prey to a growing phenomenon called “overcriminalization.”
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