How many times have you heard that “ignorance of the law is no excuse?” Well, add one more time to that total, plus its Latin translation of Ignorantia juris non excusat. It's been repeated so often, surely it must be true – or is it?
My friend Stacy was ticketed by a North Carolina Wildlife Officer at Fontana Lake during the Memorial Day weekend (a holiday celebrating “freedom”) because his canoe did not contain personal flotation devices for the two aboard. Stacy was unaware of the recent change in the law that had previously exempted unmechanized boats such as the original personal flotation device – the canoe. Traveling in only waist deep water, it didn’t cross his mind he was in danger. However, he was certainly in danger of being ticketed by an over zealous officer to the tune of $215. Stacy tried to reason that if he had known he would have complied with the new law so why not a warning instead? The ignorance of the law mantra was repeated by the officer as if it trumped any kind of logic or sense of fairness.
It's impossible to accurately count the number of laws and regulations imposed by all levels of government, but, estimates range in the hundred of thousands. The U.S. Constitution mentions only three crimes - treason, piracy and counterfeiting. However, there are now an estimated 4,500 more federal crimes and counting, on the books. How many can you name? If you don't know what they all are - how could you know if you're in violation of the law or not? The notion that people have the responsibility to be walking legal encyclopedias is as absurd as the growing mountain of laws itself.
The premise behind prohibiting ignorance of the law as a defense is that somehow no one would be convicted of a crime, since they could always feign that they were unaware they were doing anything wrong. That's quite a stretch. Actions such as murder, rape, kidnapping, assault, arson, theft, etc. are pretty much universally recognized as crimes. I can't imagine very many judges or juries accepting alleged ignorance of serious crime. In fact, such a legal strategy sounds like it would be a variation of the insanity defense.
As laws gravitate from protecting people from aggression to other areas such as protecting people from their own choices or complying with regulations – the intuitive nature of knowing what is legal starts to disappear. Just ask someone who has been audited by the IRS.
If ignorance of the law is no excuse, what's the point of traffic signs? Shouldn't everyone always know when they are driving in a residential area and that the speed limit is 25? While signage may not be feasible in other applications of the law, the principle remains the same – proper knowledge of the law is necessary in order to comply. I hope Stacy takes his case to court and gets his money's worth since $180 of his fine is “court costs,” payable even if he mails a check in without court proceedings being held. There's another vital legal concept derived from English common law known as mens rea, or criminal intent, something Stacy clearly didn't have. Perhaps he'll get lucky with one of those “activist” judges who isn't ignorant of that aspect of the law.