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 people could escape criminal liability by saying they did not know the law, then wrongdoers could seldom be held responsible for their actions.

This legal maxim has a long pedigree, going back to the Romans, the Greeks and the Old Testament. Wherever the criminal law is limited to prevention or redress of harm to other people, this axiom is not unjust. In those cases, it hardly matters whether a person knows exactly what the written law says. He already knows that if he is harming another person or their property, he must pay for the harm done.

Don’t hit! Don’t steal! Keep your hands to yourself! We learn these lessons as pre-schoolers. Even if our parents did not teach us these things, we would intuitively understand this corollary to the golden rule: Do not do unto others that which we would not want done to ourselves.

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 behavior that doesn’t hurt anyone (except sometimes the defendant himself) and it is no longer obvious which actions are criminal and which are not. Without the non-aggression principle operating as a minimum standard by which all may measure their actions, ignorance of the law becomes common.

This situation is aggravated by the sheer enormity of the criminal code. No one—not even criminal lawyers—ever reads 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 law books to charge crimes, what hope does anyone else have of obeying all the laws when so many laws have no apparent connection to the golden rule?

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 one may unwittingly commit in various places:

raising arms while riding a roller coaster
● burying a deceased pet in one’s yard
● possessing a baby raccoon
● operating any vehicle with a bumper sticker or sign at less than 6 MPH
● releasing a swine

If the justice system depended upon a defendant’s knowing that it was a crime to bury his dead pet guinea pig in his back yard, no such law could be enforced. The courts would be in chaos.

The “ignorance” maxim has never been more unfair than it is today. Ironically, the rule has never been more essential to the smooth operation of the criminal courts. Since no one can know all the laws, we all become unintentional criminals. Ignorance may be common to us all, but the state will not permit it as an excuse.


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