judge in court

If you didn’t know something was against the law, how could you know not to do it? This question has received some attention in American jurisprudence. By and large, United States law does not recognize ignorance of the law as a valid defense–not in Pennsylvania, not in any other state.

There, however, are situations where you might be successful in pleading a version of ignorance. There will be many situations when you should not or cannot. This blog will analyze some examples of United States Supreme Court decisions on when you can’t plead ignorance of the law, then present a few examples of when and how acknowledging what you didn’t know might help.

Remember, call a York County criminal defense lawyer if you’ve been accused of a crime. We’ll bring our experience and knowledge to get you the best result possible.

Ignorance of the Law in the Eyes of the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court decided a case on the question of ignorance of the law as early as 1832 with Barlow v. the United States, 32 U.S. (7 Pet.) 404 (1833). In this case, defendant Barlow was trying to export unrefined sugar while declaring it refined.
The Court didn’t accept that Barlow was unaware of the actual classification of the sugar, nor did they accept his argument that he never intended to defraud anyone. The Court announced, “Ignorance of the law will not excuse any person, either civilly or criminally.”

More than a century later, in Cheek v. United States, 498 U.S. 192 (1991) addressed how the legal concepts of general and specific intent function with United States tax law. Again the Court said, “The general rule that ignorance of the law or mistake of law is no defense to criminal prosecution is deeply rooted in the American legal system.”

However, unlike in Barlow, the Court recognized that the sheer number of tax laws and regulations created a situation where remembering every tax law was an ordeal indeed. Because of this, the current Court recalled that 60 years ago, the then-Court interpreted the word “willfully” in statutory law as indicating an exception.

As a result, the Court understood that tax law contained an ignorance of the law exception, due to the complex and confusing nature of tax regulations. Many jurisdictions would go on to recognize a difference between general and specific intent with regard to many other laws.

Other Cases When Ignorance of the Law Is a Valid Defense

Much as in the Cheek, states tend to recognize as exceptions times when it might be reasonable that someone doesn’t know the law. Typically, the rule is that, since laws are publicly published, it is assumed that everyone is aware of the laws.

Courts may recognize the difficulty in distinguishing between local and state laws, particularly for those traveling on highways outside their home state. When there are no warning traffic signs in a particular area, an attorney may help you plead ignorance of the law. Similarly, when laws are very new, courts might acknowledge that not enough time has passed to assume that everyone is familiar with the recently enacted laws.

Finally, though ignorance of the law isn’t an excuse, it may be a mitigating factor. Judges must think about several factors before sentencing, and one of those factors is the ability of the defendant to present new information about themselves to recontextualize the behavior of which they have been accused. Ignorance of the law may be one such consideration, as well as more factors like a defendant’s lack of a criminal record.