Ignorance of the Law...Is Bliss?

I have always understood that the maxim “ignorance of the law is no defense” holds true, but where exactly does it fit in the legal system? Is it a fundamental principle that doesn’t need to be stated, is it demonstrated through precedent, or is it actually spelled out?

Does it apply to all jurisdictions equally? For instance, in the US, does it apply to federal, state, and local jurisdictions?

I understand that jurys might take “ignorance of the law” into consideration during deliberation, but can it actually be applied officially as a defense? If so, are there generic circumstances where it may be applied?

I live in the US, but I would be interested in hearing about other countries too. During my googling on this topic, I encountered a page that claimed this principle was born in early Britian. Is this true or is it much older?

Please hurry with your answers - I have to appear tomorrow morning! :wink:

I believe it’s common law that pretty much applies across the board - local, state, federal. Most common law is automatically in effect unless otherwise stated in the statutes. Florida, at least has a statute that basically says, “All common law is in effect unless otherwise stated”.
So there are statutes written that remove certain common laws. There is one that specifically addresses the common law rule that a 12 year old cannot commit rape. In this state, a 12 year old can be charged with rape.

As far as a defense, one cannot say “I did not know that was illegal.” I don’t even think the jury is allowed to consider whether he thought it was illegal or not. It’s simply not an allowable defense. Otherwise, people would be saying that about EVERY law!
“Whoooops, sorry I didn’t know!”

What IS an allowable defense is “ignorance of the facts”. This is different than ignorance of the law. I can never remember a good example of ‘ignorance of the facts’. Imagine if your keys would not open your front door for some reason. You think the lock on your apartment door must be broken. But you really need to get inside so you kick the door down and walk inside. What you didn’t realize is that you were at building 12 and yours is building 11 but they look so similar.
Your defense is not “I didn’t know kicking in my neigbors door was illegal”. Your defense is “I thought it was MY house”. You were ignorant of a key fact. Not the law.
But even that defense doesn’t work on “Strict liability crimes” like statutory rape.

The justification for this maxim is partly philosophical (it is the responsibility of the citizen to acquaint himself with, and comply with, the law) and partly pragmatic (if knowledge of the law were an issue in a criminal trial, how would the prosecution ever prove that the defedant knew the law? How, for that matter, would the defendant prove that he didn’t?)

It’s a long-established rule. I’m nowhere near a legal library, but there is at least one precedent involving a British ship which was at sea when British law was changed in some important respect and those on the ship could not possibly have known of the change (this was before the days of radio communication), and yet people on the ship were convicted of breaking the new law. I’m afraid I don’t recall the details, but that’s the gist of it.

Occasionally a fairly low-level law may have some proclamation/publication requirement attached to it – e.g. the city council may have authority to make bye-laws regulating behaviour in a public park, and to post up those bye-laws. If the bye-laws are not posted up, you may be able to defend a prosecution for infringing them. But that is exceptional.

There is another exception if you can demonstrate that there is no way you could have known that this law existed (it helps, obviously, if the law is bizarre) or (better) if a state official charged with interpreting and applying the law (e.g. a police officer) told you that your proposed action was lawful, and you acted in reliance on that.

Unless you’re pleading one of these exceptions, it’s not a matter which a jury should consider at all, since it doesn’t bear on guilt or innocence, but it is probably a matter relevant to sentencing – the judge might be persuaded to give you a conditional discharge (or whatever the equivalent in your jurisdiction is) if you can persuade him that you were genuinely (and reasonably) ignorant of the law in question. Obviously, this would have to involve some action that you couldn’t reasonably have been expected to think might be illegal.

Hmmm… this is interesting, and reminds me… (slight CS hijack warning,) of the trial of Roxanne Roc in Piers anthony’s ‘roc and a hard place,’ which I’ve long wondered about in connection with the question, “is ignorance of the facts a defense??”

It’s almost exactly the situation described in your post. To sum it up briefly… in the fantasy land of Xanth, through the mid-to-later books the ‘adult conspiracy’ was gradually revealed to be a codified series of family-values describing how all adults are responsible for ‘protecting’ the underage from the harsher realities of life. R&aHP depicts an individual actually being held for a jury trial on a charge of violating the conspiracy.

The defendant was Roxanne Roc, a gigantic mythological bird who had been magically forced to watch over the egg of the great Simurgh bird. During a serious disaster, while trying to save the egg… (instead of escaping her punishment as she had a chance to,) Roxanne said a mildly naughty word, “darn” in bird speech. Because the chicklet inside the egg was able to hear and understand her, and technically underage, she was charged with swearing in the presence of the minor.

To me, this always seemed like a complete crock. She did perform the proscribed activity, but she had no way of knowing the one key fact that made it a crime… that the bird inside the egg could tell what she was saying. Ignorance of the circumstances, (or of the facts as Bear_Nenno said,) has to be a reasonable defense in some circumstances.

Now I wonder if the adult conspiracy in xanth is supposed to be strict liability. :smack:

(As an aside, Piers pulls a few convolutions out of his hat at the last minute… both the reveal that two immortal demons were betting on the trial and the friendly one was betting on a conviction, so any result in the trial other than a guilty verdict would have wiped out all of Xanth… and Roxanne’s “punishment” for her crime, which actually turned out to be a very cherry assignment as nanny for the simurgh’s chick, with some cool powers to go along with it. But both of those seem like deus ex machinas to me.)

Data point: I live in a “Civil Law” (as opposed to ‘Common Law’) jurisdiction, and the Civil Code (in its various iterations back to 1930, 1902 and the 1800s) has as an actual Article 2 “Ignorance of the law does not excuse from its compliance”.

Well, it was, but only within the book. If you read the whole series end-to-end, it actually makes the sort of insane sense that things in Xanth alway do.

Well, actually “Ignorance of the law is no excuse” is mostly wrong. Certainly- claiming ignorance of “crimes against humanity” such as murder isn’t going to get you anywhere, but my brother told me about a Supreme Court case where a guy got off for Tax Rraud as he was convincing that he really didn’t know he had to file a return. “Intent” is an important part of law.

I’d like to see a SCOTUS case or any other citable case where the Judges said “ignorance of the law is not an excuse” (again, assuming the law is not something we are all supposed to know is evil anyway, law or no law)

Continuing the hijack… maybe we should take this over to cafe society for real…

I disagree. A lot of the sudden plot twists in Xanth were far more intuitively satisfying than R&aHP. In ‘man from mundania’, for example, the ending reveal that…

[spoiler]Grey’s agreement to serve Humphrey until he returned took precedence over the debt that he owed to Com-Pewter through his parents…[spoiler]

was similar to R&aHP in structure, but didn’t give me nearly the same kind of heebies, because it was structured better. (And come to think of it, the final plot in MfM is also fairly legalistic.)

Piers went through and established Com-pewter as an underhanded quibbler from the beginning. It forced Murphy and Vadne to give up their first-born by deceiving them and playing on their fears… so in the end to see the evil machine get foiled through a legalistic device was very satisfying.

The message of R&aHP, on the other hand, seemed to be, “if we crack down on everyone who breaks the law, even when they didn’t mean anyone any harm, then somehow miraculously it will be better for them and better for the whole world,” which I don’t really agree with in the real world.

arrgh, preview? Oh well, that didn’t work out as badly as it might have, LOL. Two spoiler boxes turned into one and swallowed up the text between them.

Sorry, but I need a cite for this. It would be such a huge precedent that every tax avoider would be screaming about it.

Okay, here you go:

Cheek v. U.S., 498 U.S. 192, 111 S.Ct. 604, 112 L.Ed.2d 617 (1991).

“We thus disagree with the Court of Appeals’ requirement that a claimed good-faith belief must be objectively reasonable if it is to be considered as possibly negating the Government’s evidence purporting to show a defendant’s awareness of the legal duty at issue.”

“It was … error to instruct the jury to disregard evidence of Cheek’s understanding that, within the meaning of the tax laws, he was not a person required to file a return or to pay income taxes and that wages are not taxable income, as incredible as such misunderstandings of and beliefs about the law might be.”

Note that this case is different from most “ignorance of the law” defenses in that the I.R.S. code specifically required willfullness as an element of felony tax evasion (26 U.S.C. 7201, 7203), which most criminal statutes do not.

The maxim of ignorantia legis neminem excusa, “ignorance of the law is no excuse”, is generally true and is one of the fundamental aspects of criminal law. There’s plenty of precedent stating this, SCOTUS and otherwise:

Bryan v. United States, 524 US 184 (1998). In the vast majority of cases, ignorance of the law will be no defense. However, that general rule subject to a very important caveat–unless that ignorance negates the mens rea (“guilty mind”) necessary for the action to be a crime. For example, the Ratzaf case referred to in the opinion dealt with a federal law that made it illegal to willfully bring in to the country more than $10,000 in cash without declaring it to customs officials. The U.S. Supreme Court decided that to convict a person of violating this law, the government had to prove that the person knew the law’s requirements. Ratzlaf v. U.S., 510 U.S. 135 (1994). Since knowledge of the law’s requirements was an element of the crime, ignorance of that law negates the mens rea. However, this is very much the exception, and in general ignorance of the law’s requirements is no defense.

It just stopped him from going to prison. He still had to pay all the taxes, penalties, interest & such. AFAIK, in this case- he had never filed a tax reurn and apparently really didn’t know he had to. The important fact was that he wasn’t hidng his income & assets.

“Both the tax cases and Ratzlaf
involved highly technical statutes that presented the danger of ensnaring individuals engaged in apparently innocent conduct. As a result, we held that these statutes “carv[e] out an exception to the traditional rule” that ignorance of the law is no excuse” and require that the defendant have knowledge of the law" is a very telling paragraph. In other words- if the law is obscure and technical, and you didn’t think that what you were doing was in any way wrong, then you might have a defense.

Note that if you knew it was wrong - even if you didn’t know a specific Law forbiding it- that’s no good.

I guess it’s a matter of interpretation. Cheek does not say, as I interpreted Dr. Deth’s comment, that ignorance of the tax laws meant that Cheek didn’t have to file, just that the court should have instructed the jury differently.


A bizarre case.

Exactly where it fits in the legal system will likely vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. For example, in Canada, it’s set out in the general part of the Criminal Code: