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poisonedantidote's avatar

In a logical explanation, why is ignorance of the law not a defense?

Asked by poisonedantidote (21638points) February 4th, 2010

I ask, because it would seem to me that ignorance of the law is the ideal defense.

if some authority figure wants to punish you for doing something it did not want you to do, if this body is claiming to have the authority to be able to punish you in the name of justice, why is it not also this authorities responsibility to also inform its subjects before hand of what they can and cant do.

is it really possible to say ignorance is not a defense and still claim to stand for fairness and justice?

is it possible to defend the argument that ignorance is not a defense without simply stating that it would be inconvenient for said authority if they had to so?

what possible argument could there be in favor of said law?

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34 Answers

gemiwing's avatar

I always wondered about this. Especially with obscure laws. The big ones are easy- don’t kill, rob etc. Yet what about the odd ones? The tiny one-liners tacked on in the depths of some obscure law.

Then again, I suppose that’s partly why lawyers are held on retainer.

poisonedantidote's avatar

@gemiwing yes, the obscure ones are tricky, for example you can go to jail for quite some time if your hobby is looking for treasure with a metal detector.

but i would even extend this question to murder, robbery and other crimes. i dont really see too much that they need be separated.

Spinel's avatar

True ignorance is hard to identify. If this defense was legal, it would most likely be greatly abused.

Also, law books and state websites are readily available – beforehand. It not hard to access laws (especially since the dawn libraries). It is matter of the individual taking the initiative to look up applicable laws before doing the questionable.

poisonedantidote's avatar

@Spinel well, i would say this is just an argument of convenience. and why would it be up to me to go looking for these websites? should the authority not issue me with them.

Spinel's avatar

Why did you not look them up beforehand? Before doing the questionable? How do you justify doing “whatever”? Are not you responsible for researching beforehand, for example researching laws of the road before driving, to become aware of the laws?

DrMC's avatar

I think you are right, that it would seem reasonable to give all a chance to be aware. The reality is the law formed without your awareness, your approval, and is now being negatively applied to you.

This is not characteristic of a total democracy, where every little law is chosen by consensus.

It is actually inefficient to form every law, but consensus , instead of by people who sit around and ponder laws. they are going to be better at basing laws on just principles than the common man.

If they abuse this power of representing your interest, then you can vote them out.

Logistically its easier to make the public responsible for all laws, ignorance of a law is difficult to prove, while having done the same crime before is hard to deny, plus the fact that applied punishment failed to deter the second offense.

You have a chance to argue your case in court, and if it agreed, that it’s not reasonable for you to have been aware, then you might find your case thrown out if the judge and jury agree.

Disclaimer. Not a lawyer.

poisonedantidote's avatar

@Spinel i did not know i could not do that. sorry.

how am i supposed to automatically know what the questionable is?

i can get the death penalty for murder in some parts of the USA, so is murder questionable? and why exactly is it questionable. why is it any more questionable, than say being gay in Iran? should i know before hand that being gay is questionable?

SeventhSense's avatar

Because it’s too easy to plead ignorance. If it was acceptable, the law would be null and void.

john65pennington's avatar

The laws of our land are based on common sense. if even a person does not know a specific law, the courts would expect a person to use common sense before making a decision. example: ice and snow on the highway. you are traveling at 100 mph and cause a death in an accident. you may not realize this is reckless driving, but commom sense would tell you that this is very dangerous. the same can apply to any incident.

DrMC's avatar

In medical malpractice the jury has to use the idea of “reasonable action” – or what a reasonable person would do. – this agrees with johns “common sense”

poisonedantidote's avatar

@SeventhSense should we replace the word ’‘justice’’ in law jargon, with ’‘the best we can kind of do, if its not too inconvenient for us’’

poisonedantidote's avatar

@john65pennington common sense is what tells you when you look at the floor that the world is flat.

and i dont really see how they can claim to be official when common sense will subjectively vary from person to person. where is it stated that there is a consensus on what comon sense is? and if it is stated, why are we not issued with a copy by the authority that wants us to use it?

DrMC's avatar

One thing a lawyer said once in class years ago
Law is not religion. We leave the judgment of evil, good out. (His opinion)

Instead, the courts are filled with people, that have to find solutions to problems, that are practical and fair. They are not perfect, and it’s a work in progess.

We leave perfection to God, where it belongs.

poisonedantidote's avatar


i do know there are some good arguments out there in favor of law and the system. but if it is the case that it is a work in progress, and that its not perfect. then why are they allowed to use such strong words, such as justice, honesty, truth, and all these other absolute terms.

Spinel's avatar

I’ll try to keep my emotions down on this one. Murder is questionable because it is damaging. It hurts the human race as a species (good genes are suddenly pulled from the gene pool, good specimens are unable to reproduce). Murder is damaging to the family of the victim because it causes grief and emotional stress, both factors that hinder the ability of the family to be productive in society and for society. I honestly can’t answer the Iran part of your challenge.

poisonedantidote's avatar

btw guys… this is all just devils advocate here. there is a good chance i will contradict you even if i agree.

SeventhSense's avatar

Imagine that scenario. I’m sorry officer, I only did the best I could and was not aware that a red light meant stop. Ok yes I killed a family of four with my car but I am not aware of this pesky manslaughter thing. So can I go now? Wait why are you putting these handcuffs on me?

poisonedantidote's avatar

@Spinel im not trying to make a case here that murder is good or anything like that. but i still dont see how it can be expected for you to know that its bad, but more to the point, how it can be expected for you to know beforehand that it is actually punishable

poisonedantidote's avatar

@SeventhSense well, in this case you would already have a license and you do know beforehand that you cant do that.

but what about, im sorry officer, i did not know that i could not push people out of their cars, kick the crap out of them, take their money and take their car and drive it past these red lights.

why did you do it? it was convenient for me to take the money and the car, and i did not know i was not supposed to do that.

the officer… well, its inconvenient for us that you dont know you cant do that, so that is no longer a defense.

sure, this may sound ridiculous. but think for a moment, if the person truly did not know they could not do that, other than it being inconvenient to the enforcer, why is it not a defense, why is it not valid. why should this option be excluded when there is a possibility its valid.

to put it in a less ridiculous way, what if you get fired from a job by your boss, because he did not want you to send faxes on a certain machine, is it really your fault? or his for not giving you a work manual?

Spinel's avatar

There is the brain, the human information processor. There is the internet, the vast collection of information. There is reasoning, the process by which one comes to verdicts. In other areas of life, you are expected to know the what beforehand. For example, you are expected to know how to drive before getting your license. You are expected to know how to walk on the sidewalk before using it. You are expected to know how to write and speak after graduating highschool.

You are expected to research the law on an prospective option, rather then plunge straight into it. You expected to use your intelligence and common sense.

DrMC's avatar

@poisonedantidote why do they use strong words? To make you believe they are more than just salesmen of practical solutions.

The basis is ethics and fairness. People in that line of work may not have realized that their work is not religion however.

Blaze forth with a sharp wit, open mind, and a strong heart. (a strong stomach helps too)

SeventhSense's avatar

True ignorance of the law by nature of insanity or mental disability is certainly admissible in the case of someone not having the faculty to understand or intuit a sensible behavior.
And to a great extent our laws are open to interpretation and argument by persuasive counsel but for some things the collective has conceded that there are some areas so clear as to be inarguable. Yet even for these there is due process and numerous loopholes so the human element is always given place. Even Ted Bundy was entitled to represent himself.

poisonedantidote's avatar

@Spinel so thats it, you should just be expected to know end of story? it still seems very unreasonable of a demand to me. to just assume that people will know this. what about some kid who grew up on a small farm and never exposed to laws? or people who come here from other countries? or when we go to their countries? you should just be expected to know before hand, where they will and wont execute you for drinking alcohol? or where gambling is and is not legal? and everything else.

so, im supposed to just know what things are bad, but they get to keep the information in books and papers to double check on. so me, the subject, i just know what i can and cant do wrong, but them, the authority, they dont have to know, they can check?

Spinel's avatar

Why would you not take the time to do research beforehand…especially since modern technology makes it easy and practically free? You use your ethical sense (something most humans seem to possess) and research from there, before doing the action. Laws are written to distinguish harmful actions from okay ones. Law is a ground work for law officials to work off of, so they are just not relying on their own “know.”

poisonedantidote's avatar

@Spinel why would i take the time to research beforehand? maybe im ignorant

its kind of like the burden of proof thing here, the person making the claim is the one who has to prove it. to me it seems like that, all the responsibility is on the authority making the law, not the individual.

poisonedantidote's avatar

im sure it would not be too hard to refute that a person is not ignorant of the law if they where indeed pretending.

so rather than not even admit ignorance as a defense, why not admit it as a defense and then go about refuting it?

Spinel's avatar

Ignorant by choice, in that scenario. You had the time and opportunity to become non-ignorant, but chose not to. Why? I don’t know.

How can ignorance be a defense when you had a choice of being so? Rather, it is an excuse. A poor excuse (especially when remedies are readily available, and you have the intelligence to seek out and understand those remedies).

As for admitting to ignorance as a defense, I offer you this quote: “I understand what you’re saying, and your comments are valuable, but I’m gonna ignore your advice.” -Fantastic Mr. Fox.

poisonedantidote's avatar

@Spinel so we are going to make it illegal to be willfully ignorant? and we will inform everyone of this beforehand? if not, we are back to the same old thing again.

anyway, im off for now but will check back in a little while.

SeventhSense's avatar

Well it’s like driving. There’s a common misconception that it’s a right but it’s conditional right based on the understanding and the practice of the rules of the road. Living in a society is dependent upon many such unspoken contracts and before one sets out whether it be a business venture or a trip across town it is the responsibility of the individual to be knowledgeable or they surrender their right to venture out. Likewise this is a foundational thing that parents are accountable for their children. A child is born and is assigned a Social Security number. That child is essentially a type of property of the United States. And if you don’t believe that attempt to deny this child basic services necessary to supply him life, an education or safety and that child may be taken from you by the state.

With the foundational basis of this there is an indoctrination that occurs for any sound minded person which presupposes at every stage of development an understanding of the age appropriate knowledge. At one point that child is a minor. At one point that child has the capacity to earn a driver’s permit etc. At one point that child must carry identification on his person. These are all part and parcel of the gradual introduction of training, schooling or indoctrination. Those who are capable move forward. Those who are not are denied certain rights- driving a car etc. So the capacity to have knowledge and foresight is clear by both the individual, state and government eliminating any defense of ignorance.

Spinel's avatar

How is willful ignorance beneficial? Is a refusal to gain understanding and to use reason a good excuse for putting others in danger?

Good questions. You are stretching my mind…thanks. :)

arnbev959's avatar

It’s called responsible citizenry. One of the responsibilities that comes with the privilege of living in a democratic society is that you be aware of who you are electing to public office and what laws they are passing. What exactly would the alternative be?

In essence, as an adult it is your responsibility to know what the law is. Education, which is publicly provided for you as a child, is meant, at it’s most basic level, to teach you how to be a responsible citizen.

Of course, this is all normative. In theory you are expected to know all applicable laws regarding any activity you choose to partake in.

In a descriptive sense, it is impossible know every obscure law. Suppose I’m traveling with my dog, and I spend the night in a small town that has an ordnance forbidding that any person walk his or her dog on a particular street between certain hours. (This is a law that I’ve actually come across.) If take my dog out for a walk at the wrong time, I may well be ticketed. In this case, if we assume that no signs were posted, I would argue that my ignorance of the law is a valid justification.

There was/ is an ongoing issue in Myrtle Beach, SC that I heard about while vacationing there last summer. In South Carolina, there is no law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets. But the city of Myrtle Beach passed a law requiring helmet use. So people simply driving through were getting ticketed. There was a lawsuit going on over it. In cases where a particular city has laws that are contrary to the laws of the state, I think ignorance is a perfectly valid excuse, and a judge is likely to agree.

There is some leeway in the law. If you have a good lawyer, you can sometimes get out of certain things due to ignorance of the law, depending on the nature of the law and whether most people might reasonably do the same thing in the same situation that got you in trouble.

TheJoker's avatar

Ignorance is not a defense as to be a member of society we have to accept personal responsibility for our actions, and our innactions. Basically, if you want to live in this society & benefit from it, you have the responsibility to find out it’s laws & customs.

Rufus_T_Firefly's avatar

Not even the judges know or understand every law on the books. So, how can they truly expect the people to know them all. I think justice would be better served by using leniency and by deducing severity and intent when putting such obscure laws into common usage. Also, certain antiquated laws just beg to be broken. Remember, there were no automobile accidents at all until they installed the first traffic light.

bobloblaw's avatar

Kind of really late to the game, but the reason why “ignorance of the law” is not a defense has a lot to do with legal tradition and the common law system that we adopted from the British. It boils down to this:

In order for someone to be guilty of a crime, the prosecutor needs to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the person had the requisite intent to commit that crime and that person had to have actually carried out that crime. Thus, whether or not they knew what they did is prohibited doesn’t matter. The analysis only covers 2 things: your intent to do something and your actions that result in its completion (some laws are more complex in terms of what kind of drug you’re dealing, etc, but, for our purposes, this is the most basic formulation). It ends there. This analysis has been the case for hundreds of years.

Furthermore, the issue of “notice” also has to do with legal tradition. You are put on constructive notice of laws once those laws are signed into effect. Again, this practice has been around for hundreds of years. Granted, it’s not exactly ideal, but how else could the system work?

As some of the previous posters have stated, you may have defenses, but those defenses tend to affect either the “intent” or “action” part of crimes. You try to disprove that you intended to do the crime; not that you did not intend to do something illegal. That isn’t part of the analysis.

Finally, if you can’t beat “beyond a reasonable doubt,” then you’ll be convicted of the crime. However, I think everyone is conflating “being convicted of a crime” and the “sentencing stage.” In many jurisdictions, those are two separate proceedings. Judges tend to have relative leeway when it comes to certain crimes and mitigating factors are almost always allowed to be presented (particularly with the more serious crimes like murder and its accompanying sentences).

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