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One of the first responses many people have when confronted by law enforcement over their allegedly illegal activity (or by internal investigators on the job) is to say “I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong.” This is highly problematic for several reasons. First, for reasons that will be explained more in-depth below, whether you thought you were committing an illegal act is often completely irrelevant to whether you might have criminal liability for that act. Second, a statement that you did commit an act that you did not think was illegal (but which in fact was) is essentially the same as admitting to authorities, “I committed an illegal act.”

Whether or not you did in fact commit an illegal act can be the basis of analysis and arguments between your defense attorney and prosecutors, but you should never attempt to do this on your own in front of investigators without speaking first to an experienced criminal defense attorney who can assess the facts and the applicable law and formulate the best strategies and defenses on your behalf.

Is Ignorance of the Law Really “No Defense?”

The phrase “ignorance of the law is no defense” is based in truth, but there are ways in which it can be misapplied to a situation. The phrase is truthful in the sense that a person’s failure to know that a certain criminal law exists does not make them innocent for violating the law. For example, if you possess a certain synthetic drug that was recently made illegal by state or federal law, you can be criminally charged for possession nonetheless.

That said, some criminal laws include knowledge or mens rea requirements, and your knowledge of what you were doing when you committed the allegedly illegal act (as opposed to your knowledge of the law itself) can come into play as a defense.

Specific intent crimes require prosecutors to prove your intent to commit a specific act. For example, larceny crimes often require an intent to deprive another person of property, and accidentally taking property you thought was yours could be a valid defense.

General intent crimes, on the other hand, do not require a specific intent to bring about a result, but rather a lower standard of knowledge of what one was doing. Examples include certain arson and rape crimes.

For strict liability crimes, such as statutory rape, a person can be criminally charged even if they thought they were committing a legal act (e.g. believed a sexual partner to be of the age of consent).

Aiding and Abetting / Accomplice Liability

Another common issue that arises with individuals being charged with crimes for which they lacked full knowledge is in the area of accomplice liability, otherwise known as aiding and abetting. With accomplice liability, a person can be charged with a crime that he did not actually take the action to commit if he provided assistance or encouragement in the commission of that criminal act, even without full knowledge of the criminal nature of the actions.

Common scenarios that criminal accomplice liability can attach include:

  • Providing assistance in engaging in a criminal transaction (e.g. money laundering)
  • Providing otherwise legal tools to aid another in committing a crime
  • Providing support, encouragement, assistance, or shelter in preparation of a crime or to help evade arrest
  • Assistance in planning a crime or in evading arrest

In such situations, prosecutors can sometimes use the concept of “willful blindness” to charge an individual who lacked full knowledge of criminal activity if it is determined that the individual had reason to suspect criminal activity was afoot but willfully avoided learning about the criminal nature of the matter.

In all cases, individuals under criminal investigation or who suspect they may soon be under investigation should contact a criminal defense lawyer to assess their potential liability and strategize their defense.

Contact a New York Defense Attorney Today

The Henry Law Firm PLLC provides criminal defense to individuals and businesses throughout New York in all state and federal investigations and prosecutions. If you believe you may be under investigation for any state or federal crime, do not hesitate to contact us today to schedule a confidential consultation regarding your matter.