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Dennis Myers: Should local crimes become federal offenses?

The United States has a new law that punishes abuse of the elderly, enacted by the current Congress and signed by Donald Trump.

It was sponsored by U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley and co-sponsored by Nevada’s Catherine Cortez Masto and 13 other senators.

This is one of those motherhood bills that is difficult to fault, much less criticize, and that is what people like Grassley and Cortez Masto count on. Nevertheless, I’m going to take a shot at it, because making local crimes into federal law is a bad idea.

Although about 15 percent of Nevada’s population is aged, Nevada has no need of a federal elder abuse law. It already has an elder abuse law: Nevada Revised Statutes 200.5091 - 200.50995.

There is no particular value to making local crimes federal, though Congress keeps trying to do it, in areas from drunken driving to church burning. When he chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee, Joe Biden said, “[W]e federalize everything that walks, talks, and moves.”

The Heritage Foundation’s Brian W. Walsh has a good way of demonstrating the overreach: “Unauthorized use of the 4-H organizations logo is a federal crime.”

Federal legislators should protect states from these activities by telling constituents that they need to speak to their state legislators. Instead, they succumb to the temptation of hijacking local crimes for political use.

In addition, having duplicative state and federal laws can allow law enforcement to game the system in ways that victimize defendants (who, remember, may be innocent), as has happened regularly in drug prosecutions.

Nevada’s state elder abuse law was introduced by Assemblymember Steve Coulter of Washoe County at the 1981 legislative session. Before it was enacted, the legislative fiscal analysis division analyzed it to see what kind of fiscal impact it would have. Congress doesn’t do that adequately with these bills, which may be why about 50 such laws go on the federal books every year.

As Duke University law professor Sara Sun Beale has written, “Although criminal cases now account for only one-fifth of the federal caseload, they take a large and disproportionate share of federal judicial resources. In more than one-third of federal judicial districts, criminal cases now compose more than half of the trial docket.” Already overburdened, federal courts must misuse their limited time.

The political allure of such bills can be seen in the way Cortez Masto issued a press release that made it sound like she was the sponsor. “Cortez Masto’s Bipartisan Bill to Prevent, Prosecute Elder Abuse Passes Senate,” the headline read, consigning her real role to the text below.

If she wanted to enact local laws, Cortez Masto ran for the wrong Senate.

Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.

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