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Thread: What does the law say about ignorance?

  1. #1
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    All though a law related question is normally more state specific, I'm curious about this question in general, and would be interested to see if different states deal with the issue differently. Is ignorance of the law truely no excuse? What if you know the law, but don't know you're breaking it?

    I wandered into a local restaurant this afternoon to pick up some fresh fish, and I was openly carrying, like usual. The conversations immediately started, as some of the employees had seen me there before, while others hadn't. Everything was cheerful and relaxed.

    Now, the first time I visited the restaurant, I wasn't carrying since I wasn't sure if they served alcohol or not, and here in NC you can't carry where alcohol is served for consumption (open or concealed). After thoroughly reading through their menus and observing the restaurant, I was satisfied that they didn't serve alcohol.

    Anyway back to the story. As I was standing there waiting for my food, I glanced down and noticed a rather small sign on the low counter. It said "Under no circumstances will anyone under 21 be sold alcohol". I thought to myself "that's an odd sign to have. Of course they wont serve anyone under 21, it's feder....uh oh". I kept my cool as my eyes darted around the restaurant looking for some other clue that they served alcohol. I read the menu on the wall, and the paper menu in my hands. I found nothing; not so much as beer or wine. I then glanced at the drink cooler that was positioned behind the counter, in the corner next to the drink fountains. I stepped forward in order to see the whole cooler. On the two bottom shelves, there were two rows of Corona and Miller. Now at that point I realized I was officially breaking the law. Luckily, my food had just come off the grill, so I nonchalantly got my stuff and left.

    Apparently they started serving beer since the first time that I was there, and they haven't done much to advertise it since.So here's the problem. I had no intention to break the law. I went through a reasonable number of steps to verify that my activities were indeed legal. Unfortunately, the situation changed, unbeknownst to me. If an officer had happened to walk in and recognize that I was armed illegally, I'm sure I would have been arrested. The question is, what are my chances of getting out of it in the long run? Would my lack of intent and knowledge of the situation matter? LEO's chime if here as well. I'm curious what you would do faced with an intelligent, well mannered person that broke the law, but swore he didn't know. Might you let them off? Or is the law the law, no matter what?

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    This type of situation is exactly why the justice system was set up like it is, to make intelegent rulings on the intent of the law. Technically you were breaking the law, but any intelegent person could see that there was no intent, and that once you realised what was going on you tried to fix the situation. A reasonable judge would let you go.

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    More precisely, an element of crime was absent because there was no mens rea.

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    I think if you where polite to the police officer and told him what you had said in the post he would let you go on a warning.

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    Doug Huffman wrote:
    More precisely, an element of crime was absent because there was no mens rea.
    My latin needs to be brushed up, so in the mean time I googled the term. While reading up on general legal terms regarding intent and liability, I found this on a wiki article:
    The general rule under U.S. law is that "ignorance of the law or a mistake of law is no defense to criminal prosecution." See Cheek v. United States, 498 U.S. 192 (1991).
    At first I read this as ignorance is no excuse, period. After a second look, however,I'm wondering if the term "prosecution" was used deliberately, in that while one cannot avoid a trial based on ignorance or mistake, this is not to say that one may not avoid conviction based on the same.* Am I interpreting this correctly?

    (*Off Topic: Was that a run-on sentence? I'd appreciate a ruling from the grammar police on that one lol. )

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    DreQo wrote:
    Doug Huffman wrote:
    More precisely, an element of crime was absent because there was no mens rea.
    My latin needs to be brushed up, so in the mean time I googled the term. While reading up on general legal terms regarding intent and liability, I found this on a wiki article:
    The general rule under U.S. law is that "ignorance of the law or a mistake of law is no defense to criminal prosecution." See Cheek v. United States, 498 U.S. 192 (1991).
    At first I read this as ignorance is no excuse, period. After a second look, however,I'm wondering if the term "prosecution" was used deliberately, in that while one cannot avoid a trial based on ignorance or mistake, this is not to say that one may not avoid conviction based on the same.* Am I interpreting this correctly?

    (*Off Topic: Was that a run-on sentence? I'd appreciate a ruling from the grammar police on that one lol. )
    The whole premise behind "ignorance of the law is no excuse" is based on laws related to malum in se, that is, things that are criminal/evil intrinsically. All men are supposed to know that theft, assault, murder, rape, etc are inherently "wrong." And so, arguing that you didn't know it was illegal is no defense.

    In today's world when we have literally tens of thousands of pages just in federal laws, administrative codes, regulations, etc that largely constitute malum prohibitum (criminal because it's prohibited) - it is hard to argue that any person isn't ignorant on some point of law.

    Doug's post is terribly important, and sadly neglected in our justice system today. Mens rea is a crucial element of a crime. You cannot (morally) and should not (legally) become a felon by accident. If there is no intent, there is no crime. If the brakes fail on your car, you are not now guilty of reckless driving. If the sear on your rifle fails and goes full auto, you are not now guilty of possessing an unregistered automatic weapon. Etc, etc.

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    From: http://209.85.173.104/search?q=cache...5510-3%26invol

    Which is the google cache of:

    State v. Leavitt, No. 25510-3-II, (Slip Op., July 20, 2001).



    July 2001 STATE v. LEAVITT 1

    Cause No. 25510-3-II



    [No. 25510-3-II. Division Two. July 20, 2001.]

    STATE OF WASHINGTON, ) No. 25510-3-II


    Code:
    Miller v. Commonwealth, 492 S.E.2d 482, 487, 488-89 (Va. Ct.
    
    App. 1997) (citing Raley v. Ohio, 360 U.S. 423, 439, 79 S. Ct.
    
    1257, 3 L. Ed. 2d 1344 (1959)).
    
     The Miller court articulated the basic conflict here --
    
    between the long-standing principle that "ignorance of the law is no
    
    defense" and the inherent unfairness of an authority figure, here, a
    
    sentencing judge, inadvertently misleading a defendant about his legal
    
    obligations such that the defendant relied on this misinformation to his
    
    detriment:
    
     Reflecting the axiom that everyone is "presumed to know the
    
     law," the common law rule that "ignorance of the law is no
    
     excuse" admitted of few exceptions. The common law position
    
     was based on the fact that most common law crimes were
    
     malum in se. Seen as "inherently and essentially evil
    
     without any regard to the fact of [their] being noticed or
    
     punished by the law of the state," Black's Law Dictionary 959
    
     (6th ed.1990), ignorance of the prohibition of such crimes was
    
     simply untenable. The rationale underlying the rule is less
    
     compelling for crimes that are malum prohibitum, viz.,
    
     acts that are "wrong because prohibited," not by virtue of
    
     their inherent character. Black's Law Dictionary 960 (6th ed.
    
     1990). Yet, the proposition that ignorance of the law is no
    
     excuse generally maintains with respect to crimes malum
    
     prohibitum, largely for pragmatic purposes. Although
    
     leading at times to seemingly "unfair" results, rigid
    
     application of the rule promotes the policy it serves: "to
    
     encourage people to learn and know the law." . . . E.g., . . .
    
     Oliver W. Holmes, The Common Law 48 (1881) . . . .
    
     Nonetheless, "[w]ith `the increasing complexity of law, the
    
     multiplication of crimes mala prohibita, and a more
    
     exact definition of fundamental principles of criminal
    
     liability,' certain exceptions to the general rule have
    
     emerged." [/9]  . . . . The exception at issue addresses the
    
     legal consequences of a violation of the criminal law by an
    
     individual who takes measures to learn what conduct the
    
     government has proscribed, but is misadvised by the government
    
     itself. A number of states have adopted statutes bearing on
    
     the subject, but Virginia has not. [/10]
    
    
    
    Miller, 492 S.E.2d at 485 (1997) /11  (citations omitted). /12
    
    Nor has the State of Washington /13  adopted such a statute.
    
     We agree with Miller that the "ignorance of the law" axiom
    
    should not automatically apply to malum prohibitum, such as
    
    unlawful firearm possession, in those instances where the predicate
    
    sentencing court has failed to follow the law requiring it to advise the
    
    defendant that he may no longer possess firearms. The Miller
    
    court referenced the United States Supreme Court's decision in
    
    Raley, 360 U.S. 423, which found that a governmental
    
    commission's representations to Raley were legally erroneous and
    
    "active[ly] misleading," especially because the commission was "the voice
    
    of the State most presently speaking to the [defendants]."

  8. #8
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    Just say that you have a dangerous job as a citizen, and you just want to get home to your family safely.



    But the general impression that I get is in the criminal "justice" system of today, put in place by everyone who wants to be "tough on crime", intent is merely an aggravating circumstance, rather than an element of a crime. The only place where ignorance might work is in dealing with responding LEOs... I'd hope that most LEOs would give leeway if they catch someone in a situation like you found yourself in, as you had no intent to do harm, but once it gets past them, you'd probably be railroaded into a felony conviction.

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    Regular Member Fallschirmjäger's Avatar
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    I wish I had something pithy, or at least as well said as the above posters .

    All I can say is that in my limited experience, ignorance of the law is only an excuse if you Are the law.

  10. #10
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    There is also a "mistake of fact" defense at common law that can be asserted - your milage may vary state by state, and judge by judge.

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    Mike wrote:
    There is also a "mistake of fact" defense at common law that can be asserted - your milage may vary state by state, and judge by judge.
    Could you elaborate on that? I have not heard of it previously.
    Bob Owens @ Bearing Arms (paraphrased): "These people aren't against violence; they're very much in favor of violence. They're against armed resistance."

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    DreQo,
    I found myself in a similar situation here in AZ....nothing on the menu, no liquor license posted, no easily recognizable signs that alcohol is served on the premises. Just happened to glance at the bottom shelf of a refrigerator behind the counter and voila!!! Bud Light, Coors Light and Miller Time. At that point I decided it was "exit stage left" time.

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