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Is Ignorance of the Law Ever a Valid Defense in California?

One of the oldest and most firmly rooted principles in American jurisprudence is that ignorance of the law is not a valid defense. By and large, it doesn’t matter if someone knows their actions are illegal, so long as they did in fact take the actions they were alleged to take. But why is this principle so entrenched, and are there any exceptions to it? Keep reading to learn more. Please call a Red Bluff criminal lawyer right away if you have been charged with a crime but believe the charge is unfair due to information you didn’t have. We’ve dealt with a multitude of cases over many years and we will fight for your rights.

Ignorance of the Law: Justifications

There are several reasons for the legal norm that ignorance of the law doesn’t excuse illegal actions. Thomas Jefferson once mused that, were ignorance of the law allowed, everyone accused of a crime would claim just that. Moreover, the American legal system presumes that awareness of laws in a jurisdiction is publicly accessible, whether through newspapers, government periodicals, online and printed journals, among other sources. However, there are exceptions to this regarding the difference between specific and general intent crimes.

Ignorance of the Law: Specific Intent versus General Intent Crimes

When a crime is classified as specific intent in California, the prosecutor must demonstrate that you intended the act and the specific consequence that occurred. Laws like arson, forgery, burglary and robbery are all specific intent in California. Keep in mind that certain specific intent crimes are classified as such in California, but as general intent crimes in other jurisdictions.

Specific intent crimes are one of the limited circumstances in which, if the person who did the criminal act didn’t know it was illegal, their specific intent to both engage in the crime and cause the specific outcome of the crime would be in doubt.

It should be noted that this isn’t a perfect save, however. Even some specific intent crimes, such as arson, have special considerations. You can’t argue that you didn’t know setting fire to a building was illegal, because courts presume that violent actions are understood by all to be prohibited, just from the nature of the action.

On the other hand, general intent crimes only require the prosecutor to prove that the defendant intended the action. Much as with the example of arson above, the nature of the conduct should make its illegality and wrongfulness self-evident. This includes crimes like manslaughter, false imprisonment, and driving under the influence.