Is Ignorance a Valid Legal Defense?

One of the age-old questions in law is whether or not someone can be held accountable for breaking the law if they did not know they were doing so. Most people understand the answer is generally no, but it’s still something people try each and every day when accused of a crime – not realizing it’s essentially an admittance of guilt.

Ignorance will rarely be the best legal defense, but it does not mean you should not make clear to the judge and jury that you truly did not understand or know the law before violating it. The following questions will dictate whether or not knowing the law will matter.

Did the government publicize the law?

One of the only scenarios where ignorance can hold up is when the government changes or creates a law and fails to publicize it properly. Officials have a duty to inform the public about any changes to the law that alter the way they are permitted to act.

If a law recently changed or was recently implemented but no reasonable effort was made to inform the public then you may be able to claim ignorance of the law. Nobody expects members of the public to sit down and read through the entire Code of Alabama. You are expected to at least have an understanding of laws and know when an act blatantly violates them.

Is motive a factor in the crimes you are accused of?

Certain laws have varying degrees of charges and penalties depending on the motive for committing the crime. If you can genuinely say you had no idea you were violating the law then it stands to reason that you did not have a motive to commit the crime.

Everybody knows taking someone else’s life is against the law, but premeditation and motive can turn manslaughter charges into lifelong sentences for murder. The ignorance defense is often a matter of timing and an experienced criminal defense attorney will know when to apply it.

Does your crime have a victim?

“Victimless” crimes where nobody was directly harmed or ever in harm’s way could open the door to the ignorance defense (especially on first offenses). In general, these crimes carry lesser penalties and allow more space for lessening or even defeating charges altogether.

However, when you commit a crime where one or multiple people suffer then you’re going to need to build a stronger legal defense than just “I didn’t know.” The courts as well as the public want justice for people who are wronged by criminals and will rarely accept such a defense.

Do you have the right attorney?

As noted above, an experienced attorney will know how and when to use the ignorance defense. Building a case requires looking at all the factors involved, and even if the ignorance defense is a weak one, it still needs to be considered.

Contact attorney John M. Totten, P.C., for an attorney that believes in the Power of Representation and building the best defense possible for clients accused of crimes in Alabama.

John M. Totten