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Is ignorance of the law ever a defense?

On Behalf of | May 13, 2023 | Criminal Defense

You’ve probably heard it said that ignorance of the law is not a defense. For instance, maybe you get pulled over driving 80 miles an hour in your car. You can’t tell the officer that you shouldn’t get a ticket because you didn’t know that you weren’t allowed to go 80 miles an hour. As a driver, you’re simply expected to know the laws of the road.

And it is true that ignorance cannot be used as a defense in many cases. But is this universally true? After all, most people do not have a working knowledge of all the laws in the United States. It’s theoretically possible that you could break a law that you never knew existed.

It may matter if intent is a required element of your alleged crime

One way in which ignorance can be used is if you had to have criminal intent for the act you’re accused of having committed.

For example, say that you went to another person’s house. Upon leaving, you saw a coat that looked like yours. You took the coat, honestly believing it to be your own. That person later accused you of trying to steal the coat, which was a designer brand that was worth 10 times as much as your own coat.

In a situation like that, ignorance may play a role because you could claim that you had no intent to steal. You didn’t even know that you were stealing.

But the critical distinction here is that your ignorance isn’t of the law itself. You do know that it is illegal to steal. You just didn’t understand that that’s what you were doing at the time because you had no intent to do so.

As you can see, this whole thing can get very complicated. If you are facing charges, it’s critical that you understand exactly what legal options you have.