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Why isn’t ignorance of the law an excuse?

Imagine that you get arrested by the police, and you’re completely amazed. You had no idea that what you were doing was illegal, you never dreamed you would be arrested, and you wouldn’t have done it if you had known all of that in advance.

To you, it seems that you clearly weren’t trying to break the law or become a criminal, so you shouldn’t face charges. But there is an important legal idea stating that, in most cases, ignorance of the law is not an excuse. Why is this?

It’s impossible to prove

The issue is that someone can’t prove that they didn’t know what the law was. As Thomas Jefferson pointed out, they could always just pretend that they didn’t know that it was the law. If this were allowed to be a valid excuse, people would use it all the time, and the justice system couldn’t function. So everyone is generally assumed to understand the laws in the country and state where they live.

That doesn’t mean that ignorance won’t impact your case at all, however. There are certain types of charges for which intent plays a major role. But, in most situations, simply being ignorant of the law isn’t going to change how the officials see it. They will simply say that it was your responsibility to know.

For instance, even though recreational marijuana is now legal, it is illegal to travel to a different state with it. This could result in drug trafficking charges. You may not know that you’re breaking the law, assuming that you can take your products with you wherever you go, but that doesn’t change the law.

If you do find yourself facing some serious charges, you need to know about your legal defense options.