George Norris, an elderly retiree, had turned his orchid hobby
into a part-time business run from the greenhouse in back of his
home. He would import orchids from abroad--South Africa, Brazil,
Peru--and resell them at plant shows and to local enthusiasts. He
never made more than a few thousand dollars a year from his orchid
business, but it kept him engaged and provided a little extra
money--an especially important thing as his wife, Kathy, neared
retirement from her job managing a local mediation clinic.
Their life would take a turn for the worse on the bright fall
morning of October 28, 2003, when federal agents, clad in
protective Kevlar and bearing guns, raided his home, seizing his
belongings and setting the gears in motion for a federal
prosecution and jail time.
Around 10:00 a.m., three pick-up trucks turned off a shady
cul-de-sac in Spring, Texas, far in Houston's northern suburbs, and
into the driveway of Norris's single-story home. Six agents
emerged, clad in dark body armor and bearing sidearms. Two circled
around to the rear of the house, where there is a small yard and a
ramshackle greenhouse. One, Special Agent Jeff Odom of the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service, approached the door and knocked; his
companions held back, watching Odom for the signal.
Norris, who had seen the officers arrive and surround his house,
answered the knock at the door with trepidation. Odom was
matter-of-fact. Within 10 seconds, he had identified himself,
stated that he was executing a search warrant, and waved in the
rest of the entry team for a sweep of the premises. Norris was
ordered to sit at his kitchen table and to remain there until told
otherwise. One agent was stationed in the kitchen with him.
As Norris looked on, the agents ransacked his home. They pulled
out drawers and dumped the contents on the floor, emptied file
cabinets, rifled through dresser drawers and closets, and pulled
books off of their shelves.
When Norris asked one agent why his home was the subject of a
warrant, the agent read him his Miranda rights and told him simply
that he was not charged with anything at this time or under arrest.
Norris asked more questions--What were they searching for? What law
did they think had been broken? What were their names and badge
numbers?--but the agents refused to answer anything. Finally, they
handed over the search warrant, but they would not let Norris get
up to retrieve his reading glasses from his office; only an agent
could do that.
It was as if he were under arrest, but in his own home.
Attached to the warrant was an excerpt of an e-mail message,
from two years earlier, in which a man named Arturo offered to have
his mother "smuggle" orchids from Ecuador in a suitcase and send
them to Norris from Miami. Norris remembered the exchange; he had
declined the offer and had stated that he could not accept any
plants that were not accompanied by legal documentation.
The agents questioned Norris about the orchids in his
greenhouse, asking which were nursery-grown and which were
collected from the wild. Norris explained that nearly all of them
had been artificially propagated; one agent, knowing little about
orchids, asked whether this meant they had been grown from
The agents boxed and carried out to their trucks nearly all of
Norris's business records, his computer, his floppy disks and
CD-ROMs, and even installation discs, and left him a receipt for
the 37 boxes that they took. Then they left. Norris surveyed the
rooms of his home. In his tiny office, papers, old photographs, and
trash were strewn on the floor. Everything was out of place.
His wife arrived home shortly after the agents left. She had
panicked when, calling home to talk to her husband, an agent picked
up the phone and refused to put him on or answer any questions. It
took the two of them hours to clean up the house and try to assess
A Passion Blossoms
George Norris, now 71 and arthritic, carries his large frame
wearily. His gestures are careful, as if held back by pain or fear,
and his stride slow and deliberate. And his voice, once booming, is
now softer and tentative. Visibly, he is a man who has been
permanently scarred by experience.
Yet his mood and movements become animated when he discusses the
birth of his passion for orchids. His first was a gift, twice over:
A neighbor had received the blooming plant, straight from the
store, for Mother's Day, and she gave it to Norris after the
flowers faded. At the time, he had a small lean-to greenhouse and
dabbled in horticulture. He put it there and forgot about it. A
year later, as he was doing the morning watering, his eyes were
drawn to two stunning yellow flowers on stems shooting out of the
plant. They were prettier than any other flowers he had ever
He dove into the world of orchids with an unusual passion,
reading everything he could find on the subject. One book extolled
the diversity of species in Mexico. It was not so far from Houston,
and his wife spoke fluent Spanish, so they planned an
orchid-hunting trip. In every small town, the locals would point
them to unusual plants, often deep in the woods. Norris managed to
collect 40 or 50 plants, and their beauty and diversity were
stunning. He was hooked.
That was 1977, years before an orchid craze would hit the United
States. All of a sudden, Norris found himself part of a small,
close-knit community of orchid enthusiasts and explorers committed
to finding and collecting the unknown species of Asia, Africa, and
South America. They communicated by newsletters and at regional
orchid shows. While man had thoroughly covered and mapped the
terrain of the world, the world of orchids was still frontier, with
exotic specimens being discovered regularly.
Within a few years, orchids were taking up more and more of
Norris's time and attention, and he had become dissatisfied with
his work in the construction field. So he quit work and set off to
see if he could make a living as a full-time explorer, finding
orchids in the wild and introducing them to serious collectors in
His new business was not initially a success. It took years to
build up a mailing list of customers and credibility in the field.
By the mid-1980s, he was beyond the break-even point, and from
there, business kept growing. In 2003, revenues topped $200,000--a
huge sum considering that most plants sold for less than $15.
Norris, meanwhile, was gaining prominence. Through word of
mouth, and after seeing his orchids in collections, more and more
enthusiasts wanted to be on his mailing list, and he began using
his catalogue as a platform for his views on orchids, the orchid
community, and even politics. Orchid clubs all around the South
invited him to deliver talks and slideshows.
Norris made a name for himself as one of the few dealers
importing non-hybrid plants, known as "species" orchids. He got
commissions from botany departments at several universities that
needed non-hybrid plants for their research, from botanical
gardens, and from the Bronx Zoo when it needed native orchids to
recreate a gorilla habitat. Years later, some of those orchids are
still a part of the zoo's Congo Gorilla Forest.
Norris's work took him to Costa Rica, Peru, Ecuador, Mexico, and
other countries where exotic species grew wild. On each trip, he
tried to meet local collectors and growers, contacts who could lead
him to the best plants. Some of these, in later years, would become
his chief suppliers.
Rules at the time were lax. In Mexico, Norris explained, "You
could collect as many as you wanted" and get permits for them all.
And with that paperwork, importing them into the U.S. was a
As orchids became more popular, however, that would change.
"The Regulation Is Out of Hand"
Passion for the flower is not enough today to succeed in the
orchid business. Moving beyond the standard hybrids sold at big-box
stores requires either gaining a detailed knowledge of several
complicated bodies of law or hiring attorneys. This is a necessity
because not only is the law complicated, but the penalties for
getting anything wrong are severe: fines, forfeiture, and
potentially years in prison.
Trade in orchids is regulated chiefly by the Convention on
International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international
treaty that has been ratified by about 175 nations. Though
initially conceived to protect endangered animals, the subject
matter was expanded to include flora as well.
CITES classifies species, and the limitations on their trade, in
- Appendix I species are the most in danger of extinction;
importing or exporting them from any CITES country is prohibited,
except for research purposes.
- The species listed in Appendix II are less endangered and can
be traded so long as they are accompanied by permits issued by the
- Appendix III species are listed by individual countries and are
subject to the permit requirement only when they originate in the
Determining the listing of a plant is not always an easy task.
Some species of orchids are listed in Appendix I, and so cannot be
traded, and Appendix II covers the remainder. Exporters, however,
often have a tough time identifying plants, especially those
collected from the wild. The result is rampant mislabeling of
orchid species. Usually, this has few consequences, because
permitting agencies and customs agents, who tend to focus on
animals and invasive species, rarely have the expertise to
recognize the often subtle differences between varieties of
orchids, especially when they are not in bloom.
Making matters even more complicated, CITES contains a major
exception to the tough restrictions of Article I. Article I plants
that are artificially propagated are deemed to be covered by
Article II and so may be traded. But artificial propagation is not
simply a matter of ripping a plant from the wild and breeding it in
a nursery. To take advantage of the exception, nurseries must be
registered with CITES and obtain a permit from their government to
remove a small number of plants from the wild for the purpose of
propagation. Then there is the difficulty--and often
impossibility--of distinguishing Article I plants raised in
nurseries from those collected from the wild.
Countries that have joined CITES agree to enforce its
requirements within their laws. This means establishing agencies to
research domestic wildlife and, when appropriate, grant permits. It
also requires close monitoring of imports and exports to ensure
that no Appendix I species are traded and that shipments of species
listed in Appendix II and Appendix III are properly permitted.
While the treaty requires countries to "penalize" improper imports
and exports, it does not require any specific penalties; that is
left up to each country's lawmakers.
In the United States, CITES is implemented through both the
Lacey Act, a 1900 wildlife protection act that was amended in 1981
to protect CITES-listed species, and the Endangered Species Act
(ESA). Both, in their original forms, covered only animals; plants
were added later and made subject to the same restrictions as
animals. Taken together, these laws prohibit trade in any plants in
violation of CITES, as well as possession of plants that have been
traded in violation of CITES.
More specifically, federal regulations lay out the requirements
for importing plants. Every plant must be accompanied by a tag or
document identifying its genus and species, its origin, the name
and address of its owner, the name and address of its recipient,
and a description of any accompanying documentation required for
its trade, such as a CITES permit. The importer is required to
notify the government upon the arrival of a shipment. After that,
the plants are inspected by the Animal and Plant Inspection
Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which
checks for possible infestations, banned invasive species, and
proper documentation. Any red flags can cause a shipment to be
turned back at the port of entry.
Violations also carry severe penalties. Under the ESA, "knowing"
violations--that is, ones in which the dealer knew the basic facts
of the offense, such as what kind of plant was being imported or
that the CITES permit did not match the plant, though not the legal
status of the plant, such as whether it was legal to import--can be
punished by civil fines of up to $25,000 for each violation,
criminal fines of up to $50,000, and imprisonment. The same conduct
can also be punished under the Lacey Act, which allows civil
penalties of up to $10,000 for each violation, criminal fines of up
to $20,000, and imprisonment of up to five years.
Importers also face possible legal penalties under more general
federal statutes, such as those prohibiting false or misleading
statements to government officials (imprisonment of up to five
years); the mail fraud statute (20 years); the wire fraud statute
(20 years); and the conspiracy statute (five years).
The result is that minor offenses, such as incorrect
documentation for a few plants, are treated the same as the
smuggling of endangered animals and can lead to penalties far more
severe than those regularly imposed for violent crimes and dealing
drugs. Because this legal risk is so great, many orchid dealers
have stopped importing foreign plants--even those that can be
traded legally-- while others have sharply curtailed their
Perversely, the result of this drop in legal imports has been a
blossoming in black-market orchids, illegally imported into the
country and commanding large premiums due to their rarity and
allure. Meanwhile, those who continue to import plants through the
proper channels, even if they do so with great care and top-notch
legal advice, know that they could be ruined at any time by so much
as a single slipup. As one academic ecologist put it, "The
regulation is out of hand."
Worse than that, it's ineffective. "Habitat destruction poses
much more of a threat to [the] survival" of orchid species than
collection and trade do, concludes a recent survey of the ecology
literature. In Singapore, for example, clearance of old-growth
forest caused the extinction of 98 percent of orchid species versus
26 percent of other plants. While there are several examples of
collection dealing the final blow to a vulnerable species--for
example, the Vietnamese Lady Slipper--the vulnerability in each
instance was due to development, particularly rain forest
CITES strictly regulates trade in orchids but does nothing to
address this greater threat. Indeed, some argue that CITES has not
protected a single species of orchid from extinction.
It may even have pushed a number of species into extinction.
Orchid growers frequently complain that the treaty's restrictions
on collection from the wild restrict preservation efforts in the
face of habitat destruction. Under CITES, it is illegal to collect
wild orchids for artificial propagation without a permit, but
obtaining a permit can take months if it can be had at all. By that
time, the point may be moot: The habitat has already been
destroyed. And when collection is allowed, it is highly regulated
and usually limited to just a few plants. If those plants cannot be
propagated, there is no second chance; even if another specimen
exists, if it was not legally collected, neither are its
Further, there is evidence that regulation has served to
increase wild collection and smuggling of rare species. Trade in
Phragmipediums surged in advance of their Appendix I listing,
leading to the loss of several species. After the listing went into
effect, black-market prices rose for many species, increasing
incentives for smugglers. Growers, meanwhile, struggled to collect
species from the wild legally for propagation. In this way, CITES
benefits poachers while putting hurdles in the path of legitimate,
The other group that benefits are the large orchid growers of
Germany and the Netherlands, which supply the bulk of the world
market. The Dutch, in particular, lobbied for the inclusion of
Phrags in Article I, despite little evidence that Phrags were more
endangered than other orchids, on the grounds that they were
difficult to distinguish from plants from the unrelated
Paphiopedilum family. The listing stifled growing competition with
European growers in the potted-plant market from lower-cost
producers in South America. The respite, however, lasted only a few
years--the time it took for dealers to cultivate ties with growers
in Southeast Asia, whose output multiplied, and push prices
The fundamental problem may be that CITES is simply a poor fit
for plants. As originally conceived, the treaty was intended to
cover only endangered animals; plants were added toward the end of
negotiations. The amendment was crude, doing little more than
replacing "animals" in every instance with "animals or plants." An
orchid picked from the wild, which could produce a thousand
seedlings in short order, is subject to the same regulation as an
elephant, a female of which species will produce fewer than 10
offspring in its decades-long lifespan. And by extension, that
orchid and elephant are subject to the same means of criminal
enforcement in the United States.
The difference, needless to say, is that elephant poaching may
lead to that species' extinction, while picking the orchid will
more likely lead to its species' preservation in the face of
widespread habitat destruction. It is truly a perverse result that
furthering the ends of CITES and U.S. environmental law carries the
same massive penalties as frustrating them.
Business as Usual
George Norris was among that group of legal importers, counting
on his common sense and understanding of orchids to see him through
any legal risks. That would be his downfall.
Over the years, he had built relationships with orchid gatherers
and growers around the world, and many became his suppliers. He
worked the most with Manuel Arias Silva, who operated several
nurseries in Peru and was known for cultivating the toughest
species from the wild that few others could persuade to grow.
Norris had met Arias in the late 1980s, when Arias had just
started his export business and was looking to build a customer
base in the United States. The two hit it off immediately, and in
1988, Norris spent two weeks in Peru with Arias, collecting plants
and surveying Arias's operations.
Their families also grew close. After meeting Arias's relations,
Norris and his wife offered to take in two of Arias's sons, Juan
Alberto and Manolo, who were badly scarred about their hands and
faces from a fire years earlier, and to arrange plastic surgery for
them. Kathy Norris persuaded a local hospital to donate its
facilities, and Dr. David Netscher, a prominent surgeon and
professor at the Baylor College of Medicine, agreed to do the work
for $1,500 per child, barely enough to cover his expenses.
In 1993 and 1994, first Manolo and then Juan Alberto spent six
months with the Norrises undergoing surgery, follow-up care, and
recuperation. After that experience, the Norrises and the Arias
family were in regular contact, exchanging family photographs and
visiting from time to time.
Norris had other suppliers. One was Raul Xix, a native Maya in
Belize who supported his 11 children and wife through odd jobs:
building homes, tapping chicle trees, and collecting orchids from
the jungle. Norris had befriended Xix on a trip and encouraged him
to try his hand at exporting plants, a potentially more lucrative
and dependable source of income.
Xix, Norris soon learned, had no business experience, could
barely read and write, and knew little about exotic orchids. He
would ship boxes loaded with all manner of flora, some not even
orchids and many infested with ants, and though bearing CITES
permits from Belize, few plants were correctly identified--not that
it ever mattered.
Norris, charmed by Xix and admiring his work ethic, decided that
he would be a regular customer and use their interactions to teach
Xix the ins and outs of the business. Keeping that commitment was a
challenge: Xix's first few shipments were a total loss, and others
were turned back at the port of entry because of poor packing and
infestations. But slowly, Xix did become more reliable.
For Xix and Norris's other suppliers, paperwork was more of a
hassle than growing or gathering orchids. In most developing
nations, months pass between applying for and receiving a CITES
permit. To compensate, orchid exporters request permits early, long
before the plants are ready to sell. In that gap between applying
for a permit and receiving it, some plants die and others thrive.
Or a big shipment comes in from the countryside. Or a new family or
species comes into fashion overseas.
And then the permits arrive, and the plants are ready to ship.
Because of the delay, only rarely does the permit perfectly match
the merchandise. There are always at least a few discrepancies.
Going strictly by the book would mean giving up the lucrative
foreign markets that account for nearly all profits.
Importers face a similar dilemma. Fashionable plants come from
foreign soil, and without imports, no boutique could attract
collectors--that is, anyone willing to pay more than fifteen or
twenty dollars for a flower.
In the 1990s, what these collectors wanted were Phragmipediums,
better known as tropical lady slippers. Phrags became popular in
the early 1990s after all of the species in the family were
uplisted to CITES Article I, a move that many in the orchid
business attribute to commercial rather than preservationist
motives. Demand for the flowers surged.
Arias had been breeding Phrags for years from plants that he had
legally taken from the wild. But in Peru, Phrags were common and
almost worthless. So in 1998, he turned to the export market. It
would be months or even years, Arias guessed, before he was
approved to have all of them listed on his permits.
Arias began including Phrags in the price sheets that went to
his best foreign customers. Norris ordered a few, along with
hundreds of other plants. On the forms, they were described as
Maxillarias, a type of orchid that Arias had cleared for export.
Per usual industry practice, he received a separate letter matching
the names on the permit with the plants' real identities.
Over time, Arias's nurseries received permits and CITES
registration to grow many of the Phrags he had previously shipped
under other names, and as that happened, he began labeling them
properly in his shipments. But there were always at least a few in
each shipment that were mislabeled because he had not yet received
the proper permit.
But it was a flower that Norris never actually imported that
would lead to the investigation and his arrest.
If there is a rock star of the orchid world, it is the
Phragmipedium kovachii. James Michael Kovach discovered the flower
while on an orchid-hunting trip to the Peruvian Andes in 2002 and
sneaked it back into the United States without any CITES
documentation to have it catalogued by Selby Botanical Gardens'
Orchid Identification Center, a leader in identifying and
publishing new species. Two Selby staff members, recognizing the
importance of the discovery, rushed out a description of the new
flower, christening it kovachii, after Kovach, and barely beating
into print an article by Eric Christensen, a rival researcher who
had been working from photos and measurements taken in Peru.
The most striking thing about the kovachii is its size. The
plants grow thick leaves up to two feet in length. Flower stalks
shoot up from the plant, rising two feet or more. But the real
stunner is the flower: It is velvety, a rich pink-purple at the
tips of its petals, brilliant white in the center. And the size!
Some measure more than 10 inches across. The flower is a rare
combination of grace and might, a giant unrivalled in its delicacy
and elegance. Lee Moore, a well-known collector, dubbed it "the
Holy Grail of orchids."
Pictures circulated on orchid mailing lists and discussion
reached a fever pitch. "People decided they would become excited
beyond all reason," said one orchid dealer. "Everyone wanted it. It
was a meteoric plant." According to rumors, black-market specimens
had sold for $25,000 or more.
The orchid fever was only heightened by the legal drama that had
engulfed Selby Gardens and Kovach as a result of the find. The
Peruvian government caught wind of the frenzy over the flower and,
irked that its country had lost out on the honor of identifying the
plant, pressed U.S. authorities to investigate for CITES
violations. Eventually, criminal charges were brought against
Kovach, Selby Gardens, and its chief horticulturalist, Wesley
Higgins. All pleaded guilty, receiving probation and small
Right after he heard about the kovachii, Norris contacted Arias
to press for information about the flower, especially when they
would be available for sale. With illegal trade in the flower
already flourishing, Arias figured that he could get the right
permits to collect a few from the wild for artificial propagation.
Breeding the flower would not be easy--Phrags have a reputation for
being difficult plants, and that is especially true of the rarer
ones--but he had succeeded before with other tough plants and had a
high-altitude greenhouse that would be perfect for the kovachii.
Doing it legally could take a year or two, maybe even three.
Norris was more optimistic and ran with the information in his
next catalog, boasting that he would have legal kovachiis for sale
in a year, perhaps less--far sooner than anyone else thought
possible. That caught the attention of an orchid researcher who had
long believed that the U.S. orchid trade was overrun with illegal
plants, threatening the survival of many species in the wild.
Enforcement was a joke; there had been only one prosecution to date
for dealing in illegal orchids. He decided to take a closer look at
Norris's spring orchid specialties and brought Norris to the
attention of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Around that time, a new customer placed an order for four Phrags
and specifically asked Norris to include the CITES permits for the
flowers. It was an unusual request. Usually, the Department of
Agriculture inspectors took the permits at the port of entry for
their records. Except for the few times that shipping brokers made
copies, Norris hardly ever received them with plant shipments.
Assuming that the request was just a misunderstanding, he shipped
the plants with a packing list but no permits.
Several days after the orchids were delivered, Norris received
another e-mail from the buyer, asking again for the permits. The
Department of Agriculture had them, Norris responded, but he would
try to get a copy. That, thought Norris, was the end of the matter.
The buyer made another order for more Phrags a year later and again
asked for the permits. Once again, Norris shipped the flowers
Unknown to Norris, the buyer in these transactions was working
with Fish and Wildlife Service agents. Because of the controversy
over the kovachii, the Service had a newfound interest in orchids.
A few prominent prosecutions would serve as a warning to the rest
of the tight-knit orchid community.
That informant's two transactions with Norris would serve as the
basis for the raid on Norris's home.
The raid occurred in October 2003, but George Norris was
uncertain of his fate for the next five months, receiving no
communications from the government. On the advice of friends, he
wrote a letter to the Miami-based prosecutor who was probably
overseeing the case, explaining that he had never imported
kovachiis--this was at the time that others were being charged for
importing the flower--and asking for a meeting to answer any
questions. At the very least, he asked, could the government tell
him what he was suspected to have done? After a few weeks, his
computer was returned, broken, and Norris resumed business as best
he could, taking orders and showing off his plants at shows.
Meanwhile, Fish and Wildlife Service Agents were poring over the
records retrieved from Norris's home, as well as others obtained
from the Department of Agriculture. There was no evidence that
Norris had ever obtained or sold a kovachii, but the agents did
notice minor discrepancies in the documents. Some of the plants
Norris had offered for sale were not listed on any CITES permits.
Among those missing were three of the 10 Phrags in the informant's
second order. The agents also found Norris's correspondence with
Arias and Xix, which seemed to confirm their hunch: Norris had been
engaged in a criminal conspiracy to skirt CITES and violate U.S.
Norris's business slowly recovered but suffered a devastating
blow when Manuel Arias Silva was arrested in Miami one day before
the Miami Orchid Show in March 2004. After that, everyone assumed
that Norris would be next. Norris and his wife scrambled to sell
Arias's flowers (mostly Phrags, by now properly permitted) at the
show, earning just enough to pay his expenses and get him out of
jail. With no one else to step in, they guaranteed Arias's $25,000
bail and $175,000 personal surety bond: He was now their
responsibility. Rumors raged that Norris would be arrested on the
floor of the show.
But it was another week before Norris was indicted. There were
seven charges: one count of conspiracy to violate the Endangered
Species Act, five counts of violating CITES requirements and the
ESA, and one count of making a false statement to a government
official, for mislabeling the orchids. Arias faced one additional
On March 17, 2004, Norris and his wife flew to Miami, where he
voluntarily surrendered to the U.S. marshals. The marshals put him
in handcuffs and leg shackles and threw him in a holding cell with
three other arrestees, one suspected of murder and two suspected of
dealing drugs. Norris expected the worst when his cell mates asked
him what he was in for. When he told them about his orchids, they
burst into laughter. "What do you do with these things, smoke 'em?"
asked one of the suspected drug dealers.
The next day, Norris pleaded not guilty, and a day after that,
he was released on bail. The Norrises returned to Spring, Texas, to
figure out their next steps. Their business was destroyed; their
retirement savings and home were on the line for the Peruvian
orchid dealer who was now living in the spare bedroom; and Norris,
67 and in frail health, faced the prospect of living out his days
in a federal prison. Still, Norris believed he had not done
anything wrong and would win out in the end.
So they made a go of fighting the charges. Norris hired an
attorney who, with most of his experience at the state or county
level, quickly found himself in over his head with the complexities
of international treaties, environmental law, and the intricacies
of a federal prosecution.
In April, the attorney accompanied Norris to what turned out to
be a proffer meeting, at which defendants are typically offered the
opportunity to cooperate with the government in exchange for
leniency. Norris had not been told what to expect and did not have
anything to say when prosecutors asked what he was willing to
admit. They peppered him with names of other orchid dealers, but
Norris was not inclined to inform on them--not that he knew enough
about their operations, in any case, to offer anything more than
After that, Norris got a more experienced--and much more
expensive--attorney. With bills piling up and the complexity of the
case and the resulting difficulty of mounting a defense finally
becoming apparent, Norris took the step he had been dreading:
changing his plea to guilty. "I hated that, I absolutely hated
that," said Norris. Five years after the fact, the episode still
provokes pain, his face blushing and speech becoming softer. "The
hardest thing I ever did was stand there and say I was guilty to
all these things. I didn't think I was guilty of any of them."
While Norris and his wife were focused on his case, Manuel Arias
Silva was plotting his own next moves. By mid-May, he had managed
to obtain a new passport and exit visa from the Peruvian Consulate.
On May 19, soon after they had returned to Texas from a hearing in
Miami, Kathy Norris received a call from Juan Silva, in Peru, who
was in tears. His father, he explained, had returned home to evade
the charges against him in the United States. The Norrises would be
on the hook for Arias's bail and bond--nearly $200,000.
Based on Norris's transactions with Arias, as well as those with
Xix, the government recommended a prison sentence of 33 to 41
months. Such a lengthy sentence was justified, according to the
sentencing memorandum, because of the value of the plants in the
improperly documented shipments. Two choices pushed the recommended
First, the government used Norris's catalog prices to
calculate the value of the plants rather than what he had paid for
Second, it included all plants in each shipment in its
calculations, reasoning that the properly documented plants--by far
the bulk of every shipment--were a part of the offense because they
were supposedly used to shield the others.
On October 6, Norris was sentenced to 17 months in prison,
followed by two years of probation. In the eyes of the law, he was
now a felon and would be for the rest of his life. The sentencing
judge suggested to Norris and his wife that good could come of his
conviction and punishment:
Life sometimes presents us with lemons. Sometimes we grow the
lemons ourselves. But as long as we are walking on the face of the
earth, our responsibility is to take those lemons and use the gifts
that God has given us to turn lemons into lemonade.
Norris reported to the federal prison in Fort Worth on January
10, 2005; was released for a year in December 2006 while the
Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals considered a challenge to his
sentence; and then returned to prison to serve the remainder of his
sentence. Prison officials, angered by Norris's temporary reprieve,
threw him in solitary confinement, where he spent a total of 71
days. He was released on April 27, 2007.
George Norris has lost his passion for orchids. The yard behind
their home is all dirt and grass, nothing more. The greenhouse is
abandoned. Broken pots, bags of dirt, plastic bins, and other
clutter spill off its shelves and onto the floor. The roof is
sagging. A few potted cacti are the only living things inside it,
aside from weeds.
A dozen potted plants grace the Norrises' back porch; three or
four are even orchids, though none are in bloom. Kathy waters them.
"They're the ones I haven't managed to kill yet," she says.
The couple's finances are precarious. Following the flood of
1994, Norris rebuilt most of their home himself, but they had to
refinance the house to pay for materials. Kathy had to make those
payments and all the others while Norris was in prison, relying on
her salary as director of Montgomery County's Dispute Resolution
Center, which she ran on a shoestring budget. The same discipline
now reigns at home. "I figured out how to live on as little as it's
possible to live on and still keep the house," says Kathy.
Neither Norris nor his wife knows how they will face retirement
with all of their savings used to pay legal expenses. Arias's bond
hangs over their heads as well, and the government has said that it
will seek to enforce it. That threat keeps Kathy up at nights. She
doesn't know what else they could give up, other than the house, or
how they could possibly come up with the $175,000 still owed.
Norris has already suffered the indignity of his grandchildren
knowing that he spent over a year in federal prison and is a
convicted criminal. What hurts him now is that he cannot introduce
them to the hunting tradition--small game, squirrels, and
rabbits--that has been a part of his family, passed from generation
to generation. As a felon, he cannot possess a firearm. They sold
off and gave away his grandfather's small gun collection, which he
had inherited. In poor health and unarmed, Norris fears that he
cannot even defend his own family.
But the hardest blow, explains Kathy, has been to their faith in
America and its system of criminal justice:
I got raised in a country that wasn't like this. I grew up in a
reasonably nice part of Dallas, I came from a family where nobody
had been indicted for anything, and so had George. And the
government didn't do this stuff to people. It wasn't part of
anything I ever got taught in my civics books.
That lack of faith is almost visible in George Norris's frailty
and fear. "I hardly drive at all anymore," he explained. "The whole
time I'm driving, I'm thinking about not getting a ticket for
anything…. I don't sleep like I used to; I still have prison
dreams." He pauses for a moment to think and looks down at the
floor. In a quiet voice, he says, "It's utterly wrecked our
Probably any dealer in imported plants could have been
prosecuted for the charges that were brought against George Norris.
His crime, at its core, was a paperwork violation: He had the wrong
documents for some of the plants he imported but almost certainly
could have obtained the right ones with a bit more time and effort.
Neither he nor other dealers ever suspected that the law would be
enforced to the very letter so long as they followed its
Norris was singled out because he was in the wrong place at the
wrong time. As controversy roared over the kovachii and prosecutors
were gunning for a high-profile conviction to tamp down sales in
truly rare and endangered plants, Norris bragged that he would soon
have the extraordinary flower in stock.
To this date, he has never seen one.
Armed with overly broad laws that criminalize a wide range of
unobjectionable conduct, prosecutors could look past that fact.
Burrowing through Norris's records, they found other grounds for a
case. One way or another, they would have their poster child.
This is the risk that all American entrepreneurs face today.
Enormously complex and demanding regulations are regularly paired
with draconian criminal penalties for even minor deviations from
the rules. Minor violations from time to time are all but
inevitable because full compliance would be either impossible or
impossibly expensive. Nearly every time, nobody notices or cares,
but all it takes is one exception for the hammer of the law to
Grossman is Senior Legal Policy Analyst in the Center for Legal
and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation.