Skip to comments.When Ignorance Is an Excellent Excuse: Stop fining and jailing unwitting criminals.
Posted on 01/13/2014 7:42:02 AM PST by SeekAndFind
In the wake of media reports that 40,000 new federal, state, and local laws will go into effect this year, theres no better time for Americans to revisit the old maxim that ignorance of the law is no excuse. An unknown number of these new provisions are criminal laws that can deprive us of our liberty and brand us for life. No ordinary American can be expected to know every law, new and old, on the books, not even every criminal law. Anyone concerned about Americans being locked up for innocent behavior should resolve to help end overcriminalization.
Overcriminalization strikes at the heart of our constitutional order. In Bouie v. City of Columbia the U.S. Supreme Court explained the constitutional doctrine of fair notice, which holds that a criminal law must give warning of the conduct it makes a crime. Traditionally, this requirement was satisfied if (1) the prohibited act was inherently wrongful such as murder, arson, theft, robbery, or rape or (2) an individual did something that he or she knew was illegal, even if it was not inherently wrongful.
In recent years, though, federal, state, and local laws that do not meet either requirement but carry criminal penalties have proliferated. Exacerbating the problem, as noted by Ohio State law professor Joshua Dressler in his comprehensive treatise Understanding Criminal Law, many modern statutes are exceedingly intricate and even a person with a clear moral compass is frequently unable to determine accurately whether conduct is prohibited. As a result, ordinary Americans can be victimized by laws supposedly designed to protect them.
Some overcriminalization incidents can sound amusing until we remember that they involve real people whose lives can be ruined. Last year police charged 46-year-old Ocean Beach, Calif., resident Juvencio Adame with defacement, damage and destruction of public property in excess of $400 charges that could have resulted in significant prison time. His crime? Trimming shrubbery next to his home. Then theres 17-year-old Cody Chitwood of Cobb County, Ga. Police charged him with a felony for bringing weapons into a school zone. The weapons were fishing knives, and they were in a tackle box in Codys truck. Georgia law states that any knife having a blade of two or more inches is a weapon, and that anyone who carries a weapon onto school property is by that very act guilty of a crime.
Ignorance of the law is no excuse? Spare us.
What should we do about this grave threat to our liberties? We can start by addressing the inadequate mens rea (guilty mind) requirements in our criminal law. Legislators must work to identify and repeal or amend laws with insufficient mens rea requirements, and ensure that no such laws are passed in the future.
Additionally, lawmakers should codify interpretive rules that require courts to read meaningful mens rea requirements into any criminal offenses that lack them (unless Congress makes it clear that it intended to enact a strict-liability offense with no mens rea requirement) and should direct courts to apply any existing mens rea term in a criminal offense to each material element of that offense. Legislators should also codify the rule of lenity a judicial rule of interpretation that requires courts to construe ambiguous criminal laws in favor of the accused.
Finally, legislators need to provide an escape hatch for those who were rationally ignorant of the law: a mistake-of-law defense in which a defendant would have the burden of producing evidence that he did not know that his conduct was illegal, nor would a reasonable person in his position have believed that the charged conduct was illegal.
Once upon a time, it made sense to insist that ignorance was no excuse for violating the law. Today, that maxim often sounds like a cruel joke. Lets work to ensure that people are criminally punished only for wrongdoing, not for ignorance of laws that they had no reason to think existed in the first place.
Evan Bernick is a visiting fellow in the Heritage Foundations Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.
” Georgia law states that any knife having a blade of two or more inches is a weapon”
Ignorance or willful manipulation?
Many laws are so ill-defined that if you show them to 3 lawyers you will get 5 opinions on what they mean.
What about our tax laws?
Calling the IRS does not help either.
You get different answers from different IRS agents.
Let’s set a hard limit of 100 laws, max. If they want to make a new law after that, they have to repeal an old one.
I’ve often said that the average American probably breaks a dozen laws before breakfast and doesn’t even know it.
In before the quote from Atlas Shrugs....
Top heavy system....needs funding....smaller laws...bigger fines...Did Ayn Rand ever cover this aspect?
My 9 inch sewing scissors can be used as a knife, they going to ban them too? He stupid liberals it’s not the weapon, its the EVIL PERSON WELDING IT that is the problem, and you not carrying out the full sentences, nd taking 20+ yrs doe a Death Penalty to be carried out!
The quote I was thinking of is the one about creating so many laws it’s impossible to live without breaking them all day.
....Lets set a hard limit of 100 laws, max. If they want to make a new law after that, they have to repeal an old one...
You would think. Heck,God only needs ten...
I didn’t even know about open container laws until a cop wrote the ticket.
The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.
Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/a/ayn_rand.html#f4e3ORU73xJqqd4o.99
This is where we are headed...imo
The monetary advantage is also an important consideration imo.
smaller laws...bigger fines.....more legislation.
Right. I figured I would set the bar a bit lower for us, since we are going to make mistakes, but 100 aught to be more than enough.
This is what a police state looks like, IMO
Is there a “police state” Ping List? Perhaps there should be as the consequences of decades of over-regulating are now being experienced everywhere.