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Even if you don’t know something is illegal, you can still be arrested for it. And convicted. There are some exceptions, but these are few and far between and will vary depending on the specific charge and circumstances. A law that is unpublished, for example, cannot be upheld and ignorance of that law would be a valid defense. Another example is a law or statute that has been deemed unconstitutional.

In this blog, I will try to shed some light on what ignorance of law means and when it or similar approaches can be used as a defense to criminal charges.

Ignorance of the Law

There’s an old saying that ignorance of the law is no defense to criminal charges, and this holds true in most situations. A person accused of armed robbery, for example, is not going to get off easy just because he says he didn’t know it was illegal to hold a gun to a store owner and take the cash from the register. That is a rather simple example, but it paints a clear picture of this principle in action.

A less serious example may involve a traffic violation. Let’s say a driver is traveling down the highway, at the 65-mile-per-hour speed limit, when she passes through a clearly marked construction zone. She doesn’t slow down (even though traffic laws dictate that she should). She could be pulled over and ticketed for this, even if she didn’t know it was against the law.

How Can This Principle Be Justified?

In cases involving clearly dangerous or immoral acts, it is easier to justify the principle of disallowing ignorance as a defense against the crime in question. It is assumed that the accused should have been reasonably aware that the act was wrong, even if they did not specifically know it was illegal. An example might be leaving an infant home alone. This could be charged as child endangerment under Michigan Penal Code § 750.136b, a misdemeanor punishable by up to 1 year in jail. The defendant might not have known that this was illegal, but if that child was harmed because the defendant left, that is a crime under Michigan law. The defendant’s ignorance would likely not be a valid defense.

Another point to consider is this: virtually no regular person would have the time or the mental capacity to read and understand every single law that may apply to their actions and decisions. It is assumed that a person of reasonably sound mind would know right from wrong and could therefore be charged with a crime even if they did not know it was illegal.

Ignorance of the law is not so black and white when it comes to statutory offenses, however, which are specifically prohibited by statute as opposed to common law. Underage drinking, DUI/OWI, white collar crimes, and traffic violations are examples of statutory offenses. In these cases, it is more difficult to claim that a person should have known they were doing wrong.

When Ignorance Is a Defense

Ignorance can be a defense if a person lacked intent or there was a mistake of fact:

  • Lack of Intent: At times, ignorance can be closely related to a lack of intent. Some crimes, like theft or assault, require intent. This is the defendant’s intention or resolve to do something. If the defendant was totally unaware of what was happening, this could prove a lack of intent and therefore provide a viable defense to criminal charges. An example may be a person who is shopping and misses an item, accidentally leaving it in his cart before he pays for his other items and walks out. That is an example of lack of intent closely associated with ignorance. That person should not be arrested for shoplifting if the act was unintentional.
  • Mistake of Fact: A mistake-of-fact defense is built on ignorance not of the law but of the facts at hand. A person who is honestly and reasonably mistaken about the facts of a situation should not be charged with a resulting crime (if that crime requires a certain mental state on the part of the defendant, like knowledge or intent). An example may be a person who drives a generic white sedan. One day, while distracted by a phone call, this person walks to her car in the parking lot, gets inside, and drives home. She doesn’t realize that it is someone else’s car. The rightful owner left their keys inside, and now she has a “stolen” car on her property. This woman should not be charged with auto theft because she reasonably believed it was her vehicle.

Your Farmington Hills Criminal Defense Lawyer

Every case is unique and the strategy that will serve you best must be developed based on the facts, evidence, and circumstances at hand. As a Farmington Hills criminal defense attorney who has represented thousands of clients through the years, I have seen all kinds of misunderstandings and mishaps affect good people. I am dedicated to applying my knowledge and experience to my clients’ cases to help them avoid the life-changing consequences of convictions and incarceration. To find out more, call (248) 599-0054.