Ask the Lawyer
“When I said I didn’t know about the law I was told that ignorance of the law is not an excuse.”
Question: I found out that I couldn’t throw away paint cans in the trash the hard way. I received a citation and the paint cans back. I told the person handing me the citation that I didn’t realize there was such a law. I just moved into a place with two roommates and we are all just now 18 years old. When I said I didn’t know about the law, I was told that ignorance of the law is not an excuse. What does that mean exactly, and why am I in trouble for something I knew nothing about?
Answer: The official citing someone for tossing away paint cans into the trash is correct, ignorance of the law is not an excuse. That legal principal has been around much longer than law in the United States itself. Ignorantia juris non excusat is the Latin term that dates back to the days of the Roman Empire. It literally means ignorance of the law excuses no one. It means that being unaware of a law does not excuse the violation of the law. In other words, being “ignorant” will not allow a person to escape liability for their wrongdoing.
Most people have heard the phrase “innocent until proven guilty.” That means that a presumption must exist that a person who commits a crime is innocent, unless enough evidence is offered to the contrary. When dealing with knowledge of the law, there is a presumption that people who engage in any particular activity, will figure out ahead of time if what they are doing violates any law. It is actually impossible for anyone to know every law that may affect their daily life. In the course of just a single day, people are charged with the responsibility of knowing traffic laws, environmental protection laws, domestic relations laws, employment laws, city ordinances, federal laws regarding mail or telephone harassment, tort laws, contract laws and criminal laws. And that is just to make it through the day.
Although the punishment may seem unfair and hard to accept, there is a purpose behind the legal theory. Society runs more smoothly and with less crime and civil torts when everyone is presumed to be the same from the start. In criminal law, everyone is presumed to be innocent from the start, so the burden of proof rests with the prosecutor. Of course there are numerous exceptions to the legal theory, but basically, if everyone is considered to have the same basic knowledge at the outset, then when a violation occurs, the punishment may “fit the offense.”
In most cases, a person’s particular knoweldge may act as a mitigting circumstance when considering what the punishment should be. Mitigating circumstances allow for probation and deferred adjudication in criminal cases, and for less damage awards in civil cases.
By allowing a person to mitigate (lessen or to try to lessen the seriousness or extent of) the ability to treat everyone as having the same basic knowledge at the outset is possible. Then, judges and juries do not spend time trying to figure out how much knowledge a person had before figuring out “if” an offense actually occurred. Mitigation means that the judge or jury hears evidence that an offense occurred and are able to settle that issue. Once they begin to consider an appropriate punishment, they then consider evidence of mitigating circumstances. That is available for a person who receives a citation for putting paint cans in the trash as well. The judge who will listen to evidence surrounding the issuance of that citation will also be able to consider if the violator’s age and recent entry into the “adult” world and home rental deserves to have their punishment reduced. The best way to handle that is with respect for the court, judge and process. Admit to the wrongdoing, but then ask for permission to explain the circumstances. That is true in every legal proceeding, whether criminal or civil.
The purpose for charging each person with knowledge of a particular law is to sustain a status quo within society, for the betterment of society as a whole. Some laws have become so second nature that they are rarely given much thought, such as wearing a seat belt while driving. It is hard to imagine that a person driving a vehicle would not know the requirement of wearing a seat belt. But if some legitimate reason exists, then the judge hearing the case may use his or her own discretion to lessen the punishment. Without that authority by the court, being charged with knowledge of the law would be an impossibility for everyone.
This article is for informational purposes only and not as a substitute for sound legal advice.