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What Happens if I Do Something that I Didn’t Know Was Illegal?

The Consequences of Unknowingly Committing a Crime

Few can recite every law that governs them. In fact, it’s not impossible for someone to break the law by doing something they genuinely thought was legal. Unfortunately, ignorance of federal and state statutes may not be enough to free defendants from criminal penalties.

What Constitutes a Crime?

In order to be a crime, an offense must demonstrate “mens rea,” Latin for “guilty mind.” Mens rea is the mental element of the crime, wherein an individual intended to break the law. The concept of mens rea is founded on a belief that individuals should only be convicted of crimes when they are blameworthy, typically by intentionally engaging in illegal behavior.

Mistake of Fact and Law

An individual could argue mistake of fact if they unintentionally engage in illegal activities while remaining morally innocent. In such a case, the defendant would be aware of the law that was broken, but would have misinterpreted what was happening around them that caused them to commit the offense.

Take, for example, a sugar salesman. Imagine that they received the product, believing that it was the sweetener they ordered, and sold it to a customer as sugar. If someone discovered that the sugar was cocaine, the salesman would lack mens rea because they mistook the facts of the case. They knew that the act was illegal, but they were doing so unintentionally based on a misbelief that they were handling an innocent substance.

Now consider that the seller was actually dealing drugs. They knew that the product was cocaine, but they were oblivious to the fact that selling drugs is illegal. This is considered a mistake of law. While an individual could be found morally innocent by making a mistake of fact, it is much less common to be found innocent based on a mistake of law. That is to say that, even when an individual isn’t aware that they are doing something illegal, they will almost always be arrested and convicted so long as the act was committed intentionally.

The law can be complicated, and humans are prone to mistakes. If you made a mistake of fact or law, contact Corrigan Welbourn Stokke, APLC. We will review your case and help you determine the next steps to take to fight for your freedom.