In 1846, noted writer Henry David Thoreau went to jail for unpaid poll taxes, which he had refused to pay because of his opposition to the Mexican War and to slavery. His aunt paid the taxes for him, and Thoreau was released against his wishes after only one night in jail.
Al Capone, the quintessential Chicago mob figure of the roaring 20s, was famously convicted of tax evasion after government authorities were unable to get him on racketeering charges. He served seven years in prison, much of it at Alcatraz, before being paroled in 1939.
On September 3, 2009, a federal judge sentenced former major league pitcher Jerry Koosman to six months in prison and a year of supervised release for willfully failing to pay taxes. By his own admission, Koosman allowed himself to be influenced by extreme anti-tax rhetoric, and did his own spurious research into the applicability of federal tax laws. He pleaded guilty in May to a misdemeanor charge for willful failure to file in 2002, and he still owes the government about $65,000, according to prosecutors.
The money involved in Koosman’s case is relatively small compared to Wesley Snipes’s. Snipes was sentenced in April to three years in prison for failing to pay federal taxes from 1999 to 2001, a period in which he made over $18 million. At trial, Snipes had argued that he relied on the advice of co-defendant Eddie Ray Kahn, who was also found guilty. Kahn’s organization, American Rights Litigators (later renamed Guiding Light of Guide Ministries) told hundreds of people that they could completely avoid federal taxes.
The Justice Department and the Southern Poverty Law Center clearly have their hands full in tracking and confronting hardcore anti-tax ideology and the groups that promote it. But the Koosman and Snipes sentences should have at least a degree of deterrent effect. Why go to prison like Capone, just because you fancy yourself a modern-day Thoreau?