If I dont know that something is against the law, how can I be charged with breaking the law?
UPDATED: February 6, 2012
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You’ve heard the old adage: ignorance of the law is no defense. All citizens are charged with knowing the law. Probably the most common example of this is speed traps. When entering a new town, anyone driving through is expected to pay attention to posted speed limits—even the ones slightly obscured by overhanging branches. If you are clocked speeding by an officer, you can still be ticketed for a violation. The same is true for any scenario when you break the law—even though you may not exactly understand how you broke the law.
Defenses To Charges for Breaking the Law
Even though ignorance of the law is not a defense, your specific lack of intent can be a defense. In order to convict you of an offense, the state does not have to prove that you were aware of a specific law, but they are generally required to prove that you intended the conduct that resulted in the violation. Using the example above, if you can show that speed limit sign was so obscure that any average person could not have seen it, you may be able to get your speeding ticket dismissed because you did not intend to speed. Every criminal charge has some type of “intent” requirement that the state must prove. Most require that you "knowingly or intentionally" do something. Lower offenses may require a lower level of intent, such as "reckless" or "negligent" conduct.
When Ignorance of the Law Mitigates
If you cannot get the charges dismissed, ignorance may not be a defense, but it could still be a mitigating factor. Because of the higher number of people seeking government benefits, government agencies have been cracking down on individuals that do not correctly report their income and, as a result, receive extra benefits. Consequently, some recipients have been charged with falsifying governmental records for not filling out their paperwork correctly. Sadly, many people have been charged for accidental omissions. If you are charged with falsifying a government record, your attorney may be able to argue that your lack of understanding with the paperwork warrants your charges being punished less. You are not disputing that you did the acts, but rather you are indirectly contesting the criminal intent associated with your actions.
If you are uncertain whether your actions are a violation of the law, take the time and effort to visit with a criminal attorney in your area. Paying for a short consultation is far cheaper and less stressful than being arrested, charged, and prosecuted if you break the law.