Ignorance of the Law as a Defense
A common occurrence in the criminal justice system is people trying to argue that they did not know what they did was illegal and that they should not face consequences as a result. Typically, this argument is fruitless. The general rule is that ignorance of the law is not a defense. However, as with many things in the legal realm, there are exceptions to the rule. In limited circumstances, ignorance of the law, or simply not realizing that something is illegal, can be a defense.
In general, there is no requirement that someone know that what they are doing is illegal in order to be convicted of a crime. For example, it is not necessary for a driver to know that their blood alcohol content was above .08 while they were driving in order to be convicted of a DWI. However, some criminal statutes prohibit knowingly violating the law. This means that in certain instances, a person must do something illegal and they must have known that it was illegal to do so.
Certain crimes require, as an element, that the defendant have had a certain mental state in order to be convicted. Under some statutes, the required mental state is that the defendant knows that their conduct is unlawful. Therefore, if a crime requires that the defendant know that they are in violation of the law at the time of the offense and the defendant, in fact, did not know that their conduct was unlawful, the necessary mental state does not exist. In this limited circumstance, ignorance of the law would be a complete defense because an element of the offense cannot be proven.
Recent Minnesota Supreme Court Decision
This concept was recently highlighted in a recent decision from the Minnesota Supreme Court in State of Minnesota v. Mikulak. The defendant in the case was charged and pled guilty to knowingly violating a portion of the predatory offender registration statute. However, during his plea hearing, it became evident that the defendant did not know that his failure to register was unlawful. He appealed his conviction arguing that because he did not know he was required to register within 24 hours, he could not have knowingly failed to register within 24 hours. The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the defendant's conviction reasoning that, "ignorance of the law is no excuse." The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the defendant's conviction because ignorance of the law is a defense when the crime requires a knowing violation.
Mikulak was accused of knowingly violating a portion of the predatory offender statute. In order to be convicted Mikulak must have known that he was required to register within 24 hours of moving to a new county and fail to do so. Mikulak made statements in court that made it clear that he thought he was required to register within one week, not 24 hours. Therefore, he could not knowingly violate the requirement because he did not know that was a requirement. As a result, the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals and sent the case back to the district court for further proceedings.
It is important to note that ignorance of the law only works as a defense in limited circumstances. In most cases, it will not be an applicable defense because most crimes do not require that a defendant know that their conduct is in violation of the law. However, in those circumstances where a crime requires a knowing violation, the defense may be available. If you have been charged with a crime and think that ignorance of the law may be a defense, contact the attorneys of Olson Defense at 952-835-1088 for a free consultation.