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Is Ignorance of the Law Ever a Valid Defense?

You may have heard the phrase “ignorance of the law is no excuse” before. However, there are some cases in which ignorance of the law can be a valid defense, although it’s somewhat rare.

In general, it does not matter if you knew an action was illegal when you performed it. However, you should be aware of the following circumstances in which this rule can get murky.

New laws

If a law is brand new and not yet widely known, a person charged with a crime based on that law could use ignorance of the law as a valid defense. This is mostly relevant to infractions and other minor offenses.

Public notice

The government must give sufficient public notice about federal and state criminal laws affecting its citizens. An offender cannot be subject to government prosecution if there is no access to knowledge of a particular law, or if one cannot reasonably know an action is illegal. There are public processes that require details about legislation and regulations passed to be publicized. Criminal laws are also published online.

Intent crimes

There are some laws that require specific intent for the person to be considered guilty of the violation. If the illegal activity in question was a specific intent crime, it might difficult for a prosecutor to secure a conviction. If the defendant did not know the activity was illegal, he or she could claim ignorance, as the specific intent was not clear.

For more information on when you can — or, more often, cannot — use ignorance of the law as a defense, meet with experienced Reading criminal defense attorney David R. Eshelman.


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