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How Viable is an Ignorance of the Law Defense?

Many attorneys report that their clients start intake interviews frustrated or concerned about being accused of a crime that they didn’t even know was a crime to begin with. This makes sense, since New York laws can be difficult to parse even for people who work with those laws day in and day out. A proper defense attorney should begin by explaining the elements of the crime to you, so you have all the knowledge you need to understand your case. Usually, ignorance of the law will not succeed as a defense. To learn why this is, and in which rare cases it may be successful, please continue reading. If you have been charged with a crime, you should contact a Rockland County criminal defense attorney as soon as possible to make sure your rights are respected.

Ignorance of the Law Usually Fails as a Defense

Ignorance of the law is no defense: that’s a legal concept more firmly rooted in the history of American jurisprudence than most. It is in part backed up by common sense. Most people, and certainly most adults, should be aware that actions like shoplifting or murder are against the law.

Even considering some of the more complex New York laws, courts presume that after a government enacts a law through the correct procedure, with all necessary announcements, it becomes the responsibility of individual citizens to be aware of the law. Every person should be aware, at least to some degree, of the laws of their municipality, state, and country.

McFadden v. United States, 576 U.S. 186 (2015) is a Supreme Court case that dealt with similar issues. The defendant here was charged with illegally distributing a controlled substance. In his defense, he argued that, while he knew he was distributing the substances in question, he did not know what he distributed was controlled in New York.

The Court disagreed. Here, as in many other cases involving ignorance of the law, the Court decided that the distribution itself was sufficient. The defendant didn’t need to have accurate knowledge of its illegality.

Mistakes of Fact and of Law in Ignorance of the Law Cases

For most people, it may not be clear what the difference between “mistake of fact” and “mistake of law” is at first sight. Nevertheless. The distinction is important. A defendant’s mistake about a key fact is much easier to assert than a mistake of fact.

To give an example: suppose a young person was accused of stealing a cellphone. If they argue that they well knew they took someone else’s phone, but that they simply didn’t know stealing it was a crime, that defense may quickly fail. If, on the other hand, the defendant argues that their cellphone is the same model as the other person’s and that they believed it to be their own phone when taking it, that’s a much different defense.

Because larceny in New York requires the specific intent of taking someone else’s property, arguing that they mistook the phone for theirs works to refute that element. The necessary state of mind, of the defendant purposefully depriving someone of their property, would be missing.

Hence, ignorance of a sort can and often is a valid defense. But different kinds of ignorance will tend to invite different conclusions from a court.

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