The Heritage Foundation and its related website have published a profile of a Texas man sent to federal prison for 17 months, including 71 days in solitary confinement, for importing plants from Peru. Now 71 years old, George Norris of Spring, a Houston suburb, was convicted in 2004 of violating the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), as implemented by the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA) and the Lacey Act. His prison sentence was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in 2006. He is now a free man again after also serving two years of probation. His case proves the point that criminal law has gone too far.

Norris was a retiree whose hobby was collecting orchids. The hobby eventually became a part-time business operated out of the greenhouse behind his home. In October 2003, his life was turned upside down when six armed federal agents raided his home and left with 37 boxes full of documents. Norris was eventually charged, along with his supplier Peruvian orchid grower Manuel Arias-Silver, with what amounts to a paperwork violation.

The raid stemmed from Norris purchases of a newly discovered rare species of orchid called phragmipedium Kovachii from Arias-Silver, who artificially replicated the specimens. The CITES actually permits the export and import of artificially replicated plant species, but requires that they be accompanied by permits issued by the exporting country. Norris advertised the availability of the species in his newsletter. A taxonomist who received who was disgruntled because he was not the first to name the species asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to investigate Norris.

A buyer (who was an informant for Fish and Wildlife Service agents) ordered four phragmipedium Kovachii from Norris and asked that the permits be sent with the specimens. That surprised Norris because normally the permits were taken by U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors at the port of entry for their reference. On this basis, Norris’ house was raided. Upon examining Norris’ confiscated files, investigators found some of the plants he had offered for sale were not listed on any permits. Among those missing permits were three of the phragmipedium Kovachii orchids.

Both the ESA and Lacey Act provide for criminal penalties, including prison terms. Norris was indicted for one count of conspiracy to violate the ESA, five counts of violating CITES requirements and the ESA, and one count of making a false statement to a government official for mislabeling orchids. His sentence of 17 months in prison followed by two years of probation concluded in June 2009.

Norris’ ordeal, which was also highlighted by the Ludwig Von Mises Institute in 2004, illustrates that the more than 4,000 federal criminal laws have ensnared entrepreneurs who at most should be subject to civil penalties for conduct, that unlike traditional crimes, does not endanger the public.

– Marc Levin