Is Ignorance of the Law Ever a Valid Excuse?

judge signing paper in court

Even if you have no earthly idea that you are breaking a law, according to United States law, you are still responsible for your actions. This concept is known as “Ignorantia juris non excusat” in Latin, which means “Ignorance of the law excuses not.” There is another similar phrase, “Ignoranti legis neminem excusat,” meaning “ignorance of the law excuses no one.” The concept, entrenched in American jurisprudence since Thomas Jefferson, relies on the understanding that the administration of justice becomes impossible the moment someone can excuse themselves by claiming they didn’t know about the law they broke. But even so, there remain cases where the Supreme Court has accepted an ignorance of the law defense. Keep reading to learn what those instances were, and contact a tough and compassionate Bergen County criminal defense lawyer to battle alongside you if you are facing charges.

Rules that Favor Defendants Regarding Ignorance of the Law

In the modern day, the United States quite literally has tens of thousands of laws between the many jurisdictions that make up the country. On its face, this would make it unreasonable for anyone to have an up-to-date mental registry of every law which might apply to them.

However, in most cases, that kind of intricate knowledge isn’t necessary. Courts typically assume that most people will reasonably understand that open violence or dishonesty are criminal actions and that the government will appropriately announce any new law to the public.

The flip side of this understanding is that no one should be charged for actions that were not criminalized at the time of said action. Retroactive criminalization is simply not allowed. Here the principle is “nullum crimen sine lege,” or “no crime without law.”

Ambiguous laws have the potential for confusion and ease of misinterpretation. As such, logically ambiguous laws are similar to unannounced laws or laws that attempt to retroactively criminalize. Therefore the rule of lenity exists. This rule says that ambiguous laws should be interpreted in favor of the defendant.

Ignorance of the Law: A Supreme Court Success Story

In 1957, the Supreme Court decided Lambert v. California, 355 U.S. 225, a case where a defendant had to register as a felon after moving to Los Angeles and didn’t. Lambert had been found guilty of forgery and didn’t know she needed to register as a felon within five days of moving to Los Angeles.

Although previous courts did not allow her to use ignorance of the law as a defense, the Supreme Court declared this a “wholly passive act” on Lambert’s part. The Court reversed the punishment of a $250 fine and three years probation.

Writing for the majority, Justice William Douglas stated, “Where a person did not know of the duty to register and where there was no proof of the probability of such knowledge, he may not be convicted consistent with due process.”

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