There is a legal principle that arose long ago: Ignorance of the law is no excuse. This principle prevents those charged with violating the law from claiming they did not know about the law. If a person could escape liability by such excuse, wrongdoers could seldom be punished.
This maxim is not as unfair as it seems where the criminal law is only used to prevent and punish harm to other people. In those cases, it hardly matters whether a person knows exactly what the written law says. He already knows that if he is harming someone’s person or property, he must pay for the harm done.
At this basic level everyone “knows” the law, so ignorance is no excuse, but today we have the opposite situation. Ignorance of the law has never been more widespread because the criminal law now prohibits so much conduct that is not intuitively evil. The law punishes all sorts of conduct that doesn’t hurt anyone (except perhaps the defendant himself) and it is no longer obvious what conduct is criminal and what is not. Without the non-aggression principle operating as a standard by which all may measure their actions, ignorance of the law becomes common and inevitable.
This situation is only aggravated by the sheer enormity of the criminal code. The Federal Criminal Code and Sentencing Guidelines alone consume almost 2500 printed pages. This does not include the various state codes, county and municipal ordinances.
No one—not even criminal lawyers—ever read the whole code. When the police arrest someone, they may have only a rough idea as to what crime (if any) has been committed. They learn to look through simplified charging manuals to find a crime to fit the conduct. Often enough, the police get it wrong and prosecutors must dig into the big books to make the defendant’s conduct fit under some law. Since even police and prosecutors must consult the laws to charge crimes, what hope does anyone else have of obeying all the laws when so many have no apparent connection to the golden rule?
The “ignorance of the law” maxim has never been more unfair than it is today. At the same time, it has never been more essential to the operation of the criminal courts. If ignorance of the law were an excuse, the courts would be in chaos.
How many people know how easily their everyday actions can result in a criminal conviction? Here are a token few among the thousands of crimes we may unwittingly commit:
- Possessing a baby raccoon.
- Burying a deceased pet in one’s own yard.
- Raising arms while riding a roller coaster.
- Sending annoying internet messages without identifying oneself.
- Releasing a swine
- Logging onto Google with a pseudonym.
Since no one can escape them all, we all become unwitting criminals. Ignorance may be a universal given, but it is never permitted as an excuse.
[excerpted from Free is Beautiful]