Can I be charged with a crime if I did not know it was against the law?

Recently on our legal forum a user asked, “I was arrested for a crime I did not know existed. Is this legal and can ignorance of the law serve as my defense? I do not want to go to jail.”

It’s reported that thousands of laws are passed each year at the local, state and federal level. Given that the laws are often complex, often obscure, not necessarily consistent, and written in a legal code that the common man cannot always understand it’s hard to imagine that Americans should be expected to know every law, not to mention how they will be interpreted by the courts in your jurisdiction.

These facts have led many to claim that the American judicial system has become so complicated that it has created criminals out of ordinary citizens. For example, Ohio State law professor Joshua Dressler in his comprehensive treatise Understanding Criminal Law states, “many modern statutes are exceedingly intricate” and “even a person with a clear moral compass is frequently unable to determine accurately whether conduct is prohibited.”

Not many of us consider the ramifications of the over criminalization of America until we are the ones being charged with a crime. Consider 17-year-old Cody Chitwood of Cobb County, Ga., who was charged with a felony because he had a fishing knife in his truck on school property- a violation of Georgia law that any knife “having a blade of two or more inches” is a weapon.

No one knows all the criminal laws

With the thousands of criminal laws the average American citizen cannot be reasonably expected to know all the statutes and how they apply. Although the courts still may support the notion that ignorance is not an excuse, unfortunately, it’s the reality for most Americans. In fact, some experts note that many Americans commit felonies every day without any idea of their illegal actions.

The fact that no one knows all the criminal offenses and couldn’t locate them if they did should be disconcerting to Americans. Given this fact, our courts should allow that if the criminal offense itself is “hidden” than Americans are not being given fair notice and the punishment is unjust.

Laws do not always reflect a common moral code

Did it make sense that ignorance of the law was no excuse at one time in America’s history? Sure, when there were only a handful of common law felonies and everyone shared a basic moral code and understanding of what was right and wrong.

Now, governmental agencies and congress have passed laws which are more often based on a social preferences rather than an objective code of morality. While many of us still accept that there are laws which uphold our common sense of wrongfulness- murder, theft, assault- there are thousands of other laws which criminalize actions which are not generally known as illegal or morally offensive.

Bottom Line:

If you have been charged with a crime you need to talk to a criminal attorney. While there is a bigger issue that should be addressed through the federal and state legislatures to appeal and amend laws which are unclear and unnecessary, this won’t help you now.

Hopefully in the future there will be some type of defense that allows those who are rationally ignorant of the law to provide evidence that they did not know that their conduct was illegal and that another reasonable person in their position would not have known either.

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