March 11, 2020

What Happens When You Unknowingly Break the Law?

police cruiser in front of a city skyline

Every year in the United States thousands of new laws come into effect on federal, state, and local levels. With all of the existing laws, plus all of the new laws each year, expecting someone to know and remember every single one on the books is not reasonable. For example, frequent travelers may not know all the laws of every location they visit, since different areas have different rules. 

So, what happens if someone breaks a law they didn’t know existed? Is there an acceptable defense they can use to plead their case? Let’s look at what can happen.

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What Happens When You Unknowingly Break a Law You Didn’t Know Existed?

Most people break a few laws every day, whether they realize it or not. Speeding, littering, jaywalking or downloading copyrighted content are all activities many people engage in almost daily. Most people know that these acts are not legal, but whether they commit them on purpose, or without thinking, they are still against the law.

However, there are instances where people can break a law without realizing it. They are not aware that the law exists, so they do not know they are doing anything wrong. Unfortunately, you can still be arrested, charged, and potentially convicted of crimes where you broke a law you never knew was a law.

Related: Who Has The Burden Of Proof In A Criminal Case?

Is Ignorance of the Law a Valid Defense?

There is an old saying that, “ignorance of the law is no defense”. So, technically, saying that you didn’t realize you had done something wrong, because you didn’t know there was a law against it, is not a valid defense in a court of law. However, there is something called “mistake of fact” that a good criminal defense lawyer can use to help in cases where the accused did not know they were breaking the law.

Mistake of fact refers to a person misunderstanding the facts of a situation. Basically, you did not completely understand the details and conditions around the criminal activity you are alleged to have performed. Mistake of fact can be used as a defense in a criminal court of law if the mistake is reasonable and not outlandish. For instance, a person cannot say they did not know that driving under the influence was illegal, or that punching another bar patron was wrong.

Some examples of mistake of fact can include:

  • You are in a business meeting and you have your laptop with you. When you leave the meeting, you accidentally take a similar looking laptop. You did not realize you had the wrong laptop and did not intend to deprive the other person of their possession. You made an honest mistake.
  • At a Happy Hour for your new company, you buy a round of drinks for everyone. You find out later that the office intern is not legal drinking age, but he drank the alcoholic beverage you bought anyway. Since you are new to the company, the intern was at the social gathering, and everyone else there was over the legal age for your state, you mistakenly believed he was legal drinking age.
  • Along the back of your yard, a hedge has been growing since before you moved into the location. You decide to trim the bushes when the weather is nice, since they have gotten a little overgrown. Your neighbor gets upset because it is his hedge that he planted between the two yards (years before you moved in), and he thinks you have damaged his property. Since you did not know the hedge belonged to your neighbor, and you did not knowingly try to ruin his bushes, your lawyer could plead mistake of fact for you.

In most cases, you cannot say that you didn’t know about a law in order to be excused from any charges brought against you. However, you can use the defense that you did not realize some of the facts related to the crime you committed. A trained criminal defense lawyer can help you determine if you will be able to use the honest mistakes or ignorance of details regarding your case to defend yourself in a situation where you did not know about a law.