Attorney Harvey Silverglate argues that loosely interpreted legislation allows overzealous US prosecutors to charge any particular (disliked) citizen with Three Felonies A Day. If true, this appears to place citizens at the mercy of the law enforcement.

(One fascinating example is a sheriff who busted a drug lab operating under the guise of a gas station, using a 19th century law banning trading flammables during the dark time of the day as an excuse for a search).

How exceptional is this in time and space?

Obviously, not very: e.g., the Russian proverb "закон что дышло, как повернёшь, так и вышло" (law is like a stick - you can turn it any way you like) is pretty telling.

Do people care?

There seems to be no widespread movement to do something about it. Is the public ignorant or indifferent?

What can be done?

Are there any examples of implementations or proposals to deal with this problem?

For example, automatic and retroactive sunset provision on all criminal laws that any law which was not enforced for 5(10?) years is null and void.

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    skeptics.se does not seem to agree with that book. – user9389 Dec 13 '17 at 21:33
  • @notstoreboughtdirt: Thanks for the reference. The book is secondary for me. – sds Dec 13 '17 at 22:24
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    I'm really not sure what you're looking for here. This question may be too broad or too discussion-oriented. Are you asking "should laws be taken off the books?" If so, we can't answer 'should' questions. Are you asking "What happens if you're arrested for violating a really old law?" If so, you should ask on Law. Are you asking "Can law enforcement come up with an excuse to arrest anyone?" If so, that's an interesting question, but not at all clear from what you've written here. – Bobson Dec 13 '17 at 22:44
  • @Bobson: the political question is: is this recognized as a problem? if yes, does someone try to do something? if yes, what? if no, what the political solution might look like? – sds Dec 13 '17 at 22:55
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    I'm sorry, but idea brainstorming questions are not a good fit for question&answer websites because answers are too much based on opinion instead of verifiable facts. You might want to bring this to a more decision-oriented website. – Philipp Dec 14 '17 at 12:56

Rulers use Selective enforcement, (which might also be called selective impunity), of unenforced or generally unenforceable law for reasons good and bad:

  • As an emergency remedy, should an obnoxious criminal prove difficult to convict by ordinary means. So they "throw the book at him", e.g. Al Capone was jailed for income tax evasion.
  • As a tyrannous method of suppressing dissenters, who are found to have violated some suddenly enforced rarely used law.

    "If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him." -- Attributed perhaps incorrectly to Cardinal Richelieu

  • As a method of privileging some favored class of persons, (who a law protects), or depriving some unfavored class of persons, (who the same law fails to protect). Or vice-versa, but not punishing the favored class, while punishing the unfavored.
  • As a default condition, whenever the laws themselves are too convoluted, complex, or even paradoxical, for those charged with upholding them to understand. Bureaucrats and law Enforcement are reduced to making whatever fuzzy interpretations of their duties as seem immediately feasible. Confused public servants are less likely to question or balk at unjust commands, since they're often unsure what's actually illegal, and become de facto authoritarians.

One attempted remedy is in the 14th Ammendment, Section 1:

No State shall ... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

...which the plain English of Senator Jacob Howard puts more clearly:

It prohibits the hanging of a black man for a crime for which the white man is not to be hanged. It protects the black man in his fundamental rights as a citizen with the same shield which it throws over the white man...

And that has helped... but the remedy itself is also selectively enforced, for the bad reasons given above.

  • It should be pointed out that laws falling under the final bullet point are, in the US at least, typically struck down when before a judge as they are not specific enough to enforce. – hszmv Sep 25 '18 at 18:52
  • And that there is proprietorial discretion where there is a crime that has been committed, but for some reason the matter is not pressed. This can range from lack of public interest, to overwelming public support of the action (i.e. No Jury would convict a father who would try and rush the convicted molester of his daughters... in open court... in front of a judge... Yes this is real). To the crime not being all that important to charge someone one in the first place, to honest mistake on the part of the state (innocent in theory, but bad paperwork makes it look as if you committed a crime.) – hszmv Sep 25 '18 at 18:57

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