An ancient Roman maxim is “ignorantia juris non excusat,” which loosely translates to “ignorance of the law does not excuse.” In other words, it’s presumed that the public knows the law, and therefore a defense of ignorance typically isn’t allowed. This idea has been emphasized throughout history. Thomas Jefferson once said, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse in any country. If it were, the laws would lose their effect, because it can always be pretended.”
This age-old decree prevents individuals from avoiding prosecution by claiming that they didn’t know their conduct was illegal. In most cases—such as murder, theft, assault, and arson—it’s obvious why defendants shouldn’t be able to claim ignorance as a defense. But under certain limited circumstances, ignorance can provide a viable defense to a criminal charge.
When Can Ignorance of the Law Can Be Presented as a Legitimate Legal Defense?
In today’s society, nearly all our actions are regulated by law, classified under a wide-reaching net that includes categories like personal, civil, criminal, commercial, taxation, and international law. There are literally tens of thousands of laws on the books, both at federal and state levels. With this in mind, is it reasonable to assume that everyone knows every law?
The majority of cases don’t make exceptions for individuals who don’t know their actions or activities were illegal. The prosecuting lawyer can still pursue charges because of the harm to a person or entity. For example, if you were caught vandalizing property, you likely won’t be able to claim that you didn’t know it was against the law to smash out the windows of a business.
However, ignorance of the law as a defense strategy may apply if the crime in question requires you to have a specific intent. The prosecution may have to prove that you knew your actions were illegal in order to assert that you were breaking the law. There are also rare cases in which a law has been found invalid because the public wasn’t given adequate notice. However, because our government has long-established procedures for making laws known, insufficient public notice is rarely an available defense.
The Need for Public Notice
State and federal governments can’t pass secret criminal laws and then prosecute an unwary offender. If there’s no knowledge or access to understand that something is illegal, the public can’t be expected to abide by these rules. Criminal laws must be enacted through a public process in the state or federal legislatures, and those laws must be published in accessible places, such as official volumes containing the penal code or on a government website.
If you’ve been charged with violating a brand-new law, your lawyer may be able to assert your ignorance as a defense if they can prove that you lacked knowledge and that the government provided insufficient notice or the wording of the criminal law was unclear.
Specific Intent Crimes
Some crimes require you to act willfully or intentionally. This may relate to your state of mind, such as your intention to hurt another person or your commitment to breaking the law. Consider a law that requires a business owner to file a certain tax form related to the business. The law says that willfully failing to do so is an offense. In this situation, the owner’s ignorance of the filing requirement might be a valid defense.
However, it’s important to note that many crimes, such as statutory rape, require no state of mind and are punishable no matter the intent of the offender. An experienced West Palm Beach criminal defense lawyer may be able to help you understand which crimes fall under this category during a free consultation.
Contact Brian Gabriel an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney in West Palm Beach
If you didn’t have knowledge of a certain law or otherwise believe that you may be able to present ignorance of the law as a valid defense, consider getting in touch with the experienced criminal defense attorney Brian Gabriel at the Law Office of Gabriel & Gabriel. After meeting with you to discuss the incident in question, Brian Gabriel’s may be able to help determine the most effective strategy to execute based on the circumstances of your case.
Attorney Brian Gabriel has served the community of West Palm Beach for more than 30 years as a criminal defense attorney. He understands the complexities that are involved in these cases and can help protect your reputation and future. You can be assured that you’re in good hands and that Attorney Brian Gabriel will fight for your rights. Call (561) 622-5575 or complete a contact form for a free consultation.