Ignorance of the Law – Is It a Defense?
It is a fundamental legal principle in the U.S. that ignorance of the law is no defense. If ignorance were accepted as an excuse, any person charged with a criminal offense could claim ignorance to avoid the consequences. Laws apply to every person within the jurisdiction, whether they are known and understood. This is based on the idea that laws have been made known to the public in government journals, newspapers, printed publications, online, and other sources.
Does California Allow Ignorance of the Law As a Defense?
As in the rest of the country, ignorance of the law is not an acceptable defense in California. However, there are certain exceptions to this general rule. If you have been arrested for a crime when you did not know you were committing one, consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney. There may be a legal defense against the charges.
When Can Ignorance of the Law Be a Valid Excuse?
Ignorance of the law can be a legal defense in very limited circumstances. Generally, there is no requirement that a person be aware that what he or she is doing is illegal for a crime to be committed. For example, if you buy marijuana in Colorado, where it is legal for recreational use, then drive over the border into Nebraska, you can still be arrested, charged, and convicted of possession even if you didn’t know it was a crime in Nebraska. As in most things, however, there are exceptions to the rule:
- Specific intent crimes: To get a conviction for this category of crime, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant intended to commit a particular harmful act, such as robbery, forgery, arson, or burglary, and that requires establishing a particular frame of mind. If the person who committed the crime was unaware that it was a crime, there may be a valid defense of ignorance because specific intent was not clear or present.
- Differences in state and local traffic laws: Traffic laws may be somewhat different from state to state and city to city. Generally, signs and notices will be posted to warn of different rules in a particular location. If certain behavior is against the law in a particular area but there are no warnings posted, ignorance of the law may be a valid defense in court.
- New laws: When a law is brand new, the general public may not have had enough time to become aware of it. If you have unknowingly violated a law that is new and not yet well publicized and widely known, ignorance may be a defense. This may be particularly true if the new law criminalizes behavior that is legal in other places.
What Can You Do If You Are Accused of Breaking a Law of Which You Were Ignorant?
You can be arrested for unknowingly committing a crime. Police only need probable cause that you committed the illegal act to arrest you. It is the job of the jury to determine whether you are innocent or guilty. If you are arrested, keep your constitutional rights in mind. Politely state that you are exercising your right to remain silent and to not answer questions without an attorney present to represent you, then speak with an attorney as soon as possible.
At Werksman Jackson & Quinn LLP, we have a proven track record of resolving issues quickly and quietly. Our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys have decades of experience handling complex cases in a wide variety of criminal matters. Contact us at (213) 688-0460 if you are accused of breaking a law you didn’t know existed.