General Question

lightsourcetrickster's avatar

If ignorance of the law is no excuse - then at what point should we know of all of the laws?

Asked by lightsourcetrickster (1902points) January 12th, 2013

Obvious laws are well known, such as burglary, fraud, arson, etc etc, but what of the lesser known laws? If ignorance of the law is no excuse, then why aren’t we taught ‘the law’ at the earliest possible opportunity?

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39 Answers

livelaughlove21's avatar

There’s no way the layperson could possibly know all the laws on the books. Many of them aren’t even enforced for the most part. For example, South Carolina has sodomy and buggery laws that aren’t regularly enforced. Most people are unaware that these laws even exist.

Even lawyers need to look up laws from time to time. Crimes have so many elements that our brains simply don’t have the capacity to memorize them all.

Ignorance is no excuse when it comes to fairly common laws. It’s not that often that we do things and are not sure if it’s legal or not. And a quick Google search or call to a lawyer could verify that.

poisonedantidote's avatar

Ignorance of the law is a fine excuse, and anyone who says otherwise is just a tyrant, more interested in convenience than actual justice.

The statement, ignorance of the law is no excuse, is obviously manipulative bullshit, when you consider that most of the time you need a highly paid expert just to get a basic understanding of a law, and even then it still allows margin for debate and disagreement.

I say, ignorance of the law is no excuse, only when all subjects have been fully informed of the law, by those who enforce it. Otherwise, the blame for any ignorance falls to the government and law enforcement.

Also… how can “ignorance of the law is no excuse” even be taken seriously, in a world were most police, lawyers and politicians could be stumped for an answer with a simple question.

To me, the statement “ignorance of the law is no excuse”, is in and of its self a pathetic excuse issued by people who pretend to care about fairness and justice, while in reality consciously seeking ways to be unfair and unjust as a way to further their own power.

livelaughlove21's avatar

@poisonedantidote I’d just like to point out that “ignorance is no excuse” isn’t just a saying; it’s the law. Claiming to not know what you did was illegal doesn’t get you out of being prosecuted for the crime. That alone makes the statement true.

Coloma's avatar

I agree, it is impossible to know of every law and loophole, that’s what attorneys are for.
Now, on my property Jehovahs Witnesses are considered illegal trespassers and I sick the geese on them. Jehovah can’t save you now, you better run, or the geezers will get you. lol

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livelaughlove21's avatar

@poisonedantidote Okaaaay…

I’d also like to add that, if that law was abolished, anyone could get away with any crime by claiming they didn’t know it was against the law. As if they don’t try that enough as it is: “I swear, officer, I didn’t know selling heroin was illegal!” Because how can one prove if they were or weren’t aware of a law? Which is why this law will never be abolished.

poisonedantidote's avatar

@livelaughlove21 If we abolished it, then I guess those who make laws would need to do some real work, and start informing people of the law.

Law is intentionally made complicated, so that people can’t know the law, so they can call people up on technicalities, then claim that ignorance is no excuse, as a license to oppress and treat the public like a bunch of ignorant slaves, and ultimately enforce anything they want at any time.

Simplify the law, with the use of to the point plain English, and then issue everyone a copy on birth. Then you can claim to be upholding the law for justice, honor, truth, and all these other words they toss around, as if they mean something.

Otherwise, keep ignorance of the law is no excuse, but replace the word justice with the word convenience, the word honor with the word sneaky, and the word truth with the words “yea yea whatever bitch, I do what I want”. Then again, maybe the general public would not respect law so much if we used the proper words that best represent the ‘justice’ system, and we can’t have that.

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ETpro's avatar

Just the Affordable Healthcare Act runs nearly 10,000 pages, and much of its text is in the form of references to other, preexisting laws you would also have to read to fully comprehend it. The US tax code, something those of us who make a decent amount of money can profit from knowing, is bigger than an encyclopedia and takes a lifetime of study and constant monitoring of changes to master. Realistically, we cannot know all law. We should know the five bases of common law that pretty much derive from the part of the ten commandments that pertain to our behavior with other people rather than our behavior with God.

If there are laws that impact our profession, we should know those. When contemplating a move that involves law outside our understanding, as in starting a corporation, contemplating a merger, buying or selling property, etc.; it’s a good idea to retain competent legal counsel to make sure we’re informed of the pertinent portions of the law.

gailcalled's avatar

Even lawyers have specialities and subspecialties and colleagues and research assistants and law libraries.

My accountant is weeping over the new tax laws so loudly that I can hear her with the windows open here.

Fidelity is sending me messages saying that they will have the documents ready for tax prep. by a certain date in mid-Feb. or early March, unless they won’t. Wait for the next bulletin.

And if you want a laugh or two, check out the common laws in your state.

Here, for example, out of pages and pages of screed about livestock on the village green.Source

Despite passing numerous bylaws, problems persisted and in 1823 the Town Meeting voted to build new pounds of stone at Dx Kxxx Village and Rich’s Settlement. A new town law was passed that “no black sheep shall run at large from the first of September until the middle of November”. (This is the normal breeding season. Evidently someone was not happy with a surprise crop of black lambs.) The fine was one dollar per instance.

livelaughlove21's avatar

@poisonedantidote You obviously have some personal vendetta against the criminal justice system, so nothing I say will make any difference (if that rant was any indication) and vise versa. But, I will say this…

The law is made abailable to everyone that cares enough to look and I’ve never had any problem understanding the wording of a law. If I did, that’s what a lawyer is there for. With all the technology we have, the law is literally at our fingertips. As I said in my original answer, we can’t memorize all the laws on the books, but saying they’re not provided to us would just be plain incorrect.

I believe that every high school should require at least one intro course on criminal law, so everyone knows where to find the law and how to interpret it. However, even without that, we all have the capacity to know enough not to get ourselves into trouble.

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El_Cadejo's avatar

I suppose this is semi related. I just got to say probably around 80% of the drug arrest stories I’ve heard from friends and others has come from their own ignorance of the law. In just about every case they gave away their own rights which allowed themselves to get arrested. Yes I know by having drugs they were breaking the law in the first place, but they still wouldn’t have gotten arrested if they weren’t so damn stupid. It just blows my mind how many people decide to take illicit drugs but can’t be bothered to learn the laws concerning them and your own rights.

HolographicUniverse's avatar

Ignorance of the law is an unfair and broad suggestion. There are literally thousands of laws, google “how many laws are there”, in existence by which no one individual can possibly learn/store them all… The greatest lawyer would only physically be able to sustain about a third or half of this material.

Therefore there are common laws that the common man are expected to know and this is what that statement (should) generally apply to. Citizens are more prone to understand that killing is a crime over molesting a butterfly in Pacific grove can result in a 500 fine. Ignorance of the common laws are no excuse but ignorance of the unknown is natural.

HolographicUniverse's avatar


Because most people who commit crime and are captured are normally ignorant…

I can empathize with points you are making in which we create new laws constantly and dont inform the generally public of a large majority however this is not done with regards to the sheer multitude of laws we would be enforcing therefore they make these laws quite readily available to the public at their own disposal rather than spending time or money on the task at teaching 300 million citizens u.s, and state, laws.

Furthermore you rarely see law enforcement fixated on the lesser known offenses, what business will be persecuted for charging admission to see a one armed pianist? Many of these miniscule laws receive taps on the wrist because of lesser notoriety

poisonedantidote's avatar

@livelaughlove21 Honestly, there is no vendetta, for there to be a vendetta they would have had to of done something to me that makes me want revenge, and revenge implies there is something I could do to make it even again in my eyes. This is not the case, I simply don’t accept or agree to any law, in my eyes it is all make believe.

Also, there is no such thing as a country, but that is a debate for another day. Finally, yes I would be much happier in a world with no laws, like this all the criminal mobs would be much smaller, rather than having one giant mob called the government. If a dozen killers come to your house, maybe you can live through it, however you are more or less screwed if the government decides they don’t want you around.

@HolographicUniverse I am not necessarily talking about laws changing, I mean all of them. No government official has ever told me to not kill, for all I know, murder laws could be urban myths, just like mythical laws about other things.

I was born, and no one informed me, or asked me if I agree to anything, they just assumed I did, or worse, decided to impose. As it is, I don’t accept or agree to any laws, or recognize any mobs as being officially anything other than a mob.

lightsourcetrickster's avatar

The questions that I’m particularly keen to have answered in the General Section at the moment – just as a refresher for people…..

A)If ignorance of the law is no excuse – then at what point should we know of all of the laws?
B)...why aren’t we taught ‘the law’ at the earliest possible opportunity?

I will happily GA answers that address these two questions specifically!

poisonedantidote's avatar

@lightsourcetrickster We should know of all the laws once we are informed of them by the makers and enforcers. Ideally at birth, with a reminder when you reach legal age.

We are not taught the law at the earliest possible stage, because the system is dependent on our ignorance of the law. If everyone were an expert in every single law, it would be very hard to get anything done, or should I say, make people do things. Police would have a hard time doing their job, if ignorance did not make people automatically bow down to their presence. Instead they would question things, and debate things, and that parking ticket would become very hard to enforce, if not impossible. It is much better for the system if they can just push you around, give you the ticket, and move on to the next thing.

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HolographicUniverse's avatar


I agree with livelaughlove

Your assessment is senseless on many levels


If you read my answers I addressed point A.
It is impossible to know all laws, there are no practical reasons to, the common man should know the common laws with no regard to the lesser known ones unless there becomes a higher rate of penalty for the ones that are less notable.

Which leads in to question B. Our parents are provided the opportunity to teach us the common laws at a decent age

As I have said rarely are people penalized for the crimes with less notoriety

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SABOTEUR's avatar

I’ve heard this type of question before. I hear it from my students at work who’ve graduated from the classroom and transferred to a practice work environment where their level of proficiency is critiqued. It’s a variation of,

“They didn’t teach us that in class.”

My response is always, you’ll never learn everything in class. Training provides basic skills students must master and refer to whenever they encounter situations they were not formally taught. Some things you “learn as you go”.

You won’t be taught every law. Hopefully, you’re taught enough laws that will give you a sense of what’s lawful and what isn’t. Occasionally the unknown law will catch you by surprise. If you haven’t inadvertently broken a serious law, you’ll (hopefully) be slapped on the wrist and cautioned not to do it again.

You learn as you go.

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Lightlyseared's avatar

Ignorance of the law is no defence and it has to be this way (whether you agree with it or not) or you’d find every murderer etc turning up at court looking all innocent and saying “wow…killing people is illegal…well I never knew that! I’ll have to remember not to do that again!”

flutherother's avatar

We would only have to know all the laws if all laws were arbitrary and unfair. Our legal system isn’t arbitrary it is based on what is considered decent behaviour . And so, miraculously, simply by behaving in a decent way, we avoid breaking any laws.

HolographicUniverse's avatar


The question asked “but what of lesser known laws” with regard to the well known like murder.
Noone here disagrees with that, what is in question are the many laws that we dont know and why citizens are not informed of them. Well that is easy because they have easy access to learn them yet there are too many for one individual to know, many are not even applicable, therefore ignorance of the law is excusable, just not for those most severe (in which case you are taught through media)

Like what flutherother said

If you behave well as a citizen then you need not worry about breaking laws

CWOTUS's avatar

No one has to know – or has any reason to know – “all of the laws”. For example, since I do not export military hardware, I don’t need to know all of the applicable laws on the topic. However, since my company does export some “sensitive” equipment that can be re-purposed from time to time (including computers, believe it or not – but mostly for the software that may be loaded on them), then I need to know who to contact in my company who does know the relevant law on the topic.

And that guy doesn’t know much of the regulation that affects steam power boiler construction or commissioning – and I myself don’t know jack about operation and dispatching of electricity to the grid. And so on and so forth.

If you don’t get involved in various activities in life, then why would you need to know the applicable laws on the topic?

I’m not going to be a midwife, so there’s something else I have no need to study now.

SABOTEUR's avatar

@CWOTUS Good point. In the service, they called it the “need to know”. On many occasions you were given only such information you needed to know to get the job done. So if I understand you correctly, the average citizen really only needs to know (or be aware of) such laws that may most likely get them in trouble if violated.

The fact that no one knows every law and still manages to avoid running afoul of the law seems to demonstrate quite effectively that knowing every law is unnecessary.

wundayatta's avatar

Most of us know the laws necessary for everyday life. We know it’s illegal to hurt people or kill them. It’s illegal to steal.

The rest of it has to do with specialty law, and we learn that as needed. Banking law, immigration law, importation law, environmental law, labor law and so on.

Lightlyseared's avatar

@HolographicUniverse thank you I read the q. I didn’t think the reason we have that doctrine needed spelling out quite so clearly. If you make one law where you can get away with breaking it just because you hadn’t heard about it then you might as well apply it to all laws. Say you have an obscure law where you have added the defence of ignorance you would find it impossible to prosecute people for violating it as everyone charged with that offence would use that defence and the prosecution would then have to prove not only that the individual had broken the law but also that they were unaware of the law and proving what people do or do not know at given point in the past is impossible. And once you have started doing it for one law the the precedent is there for all laws to use a defence of ignorance and your entire legal system breaks down.

bolwerk's avatar

Ignorance of the law may be no excuse in the squinty eyes of the pig state, but you can use rules and procedure to your advantage just like the state does.

An example in the USA: when confronted for law breaking, never confess or raise a defense to a cop. If they have something on you, they can arrest you, in which case they must give you a lawyer. If you’re not under arrest, simply refuse to tell the police anything. And let your lawyer do the talking if you are arrested.

HolographicUniverse's avatar


There is no practical way to enforce every law in addition to it not being mandatory for citizens to know each… That being said ignorance is imminent therefore a valid excuse. We enforce the main laws that are most influential to society, the lesser known ones are special subsets and in applicable to the common man. For instance ignorance in regards to a robbery is inexcusable as opposed to copyright for an image used from google.

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