Ignorance of Law vs. Ignorance of Fact: Does It Matter?

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South Carolina and other states are constantly revising and updating their laws to reflect our ever-changing society and culture. Even some South Carolina attorneys have difficulty keeping abreast of changes in the law, so it is understandable when the average citizen is unaware that an existing law has been revised or a new law been enacted. Changes in civil laws can cause a citizen confusion about his or her legal rights: changes in the criminal laws of a state, however, can result in conviction, fines, and/or incarceration. Can a defendant successfully defend him or herself by claiming he or she did not know the law?

Ignorance or Mistake of the Law is Not Typically a Defense

Unfortunately, the fact that you did not know your actions were illegal does not mean you cannot be prosecuted for and convicted of a crime in most cases. To use an obviously-exaggerated example to illustrate, the fact that you did not know South Carolina criminalizes the deliberate killing another individual with premeditation as murder would not prevent the government from prosecuting you for and convicting you of murder so long as the evidence established you did in fact deliberately kill another person with premeditation. The only time that a mistake or ignorance of the law can potentially provide a defense to criminal charges is when (1) the law was recently enacted or amended and there was no reasonable opportunity for a person to make him- or herself aware of the changes; and/or (2) you rely on an official interpretation of the law given by a judge or similar person in authority and that interpretation proves to be wrong.

Ignorance or Mistake of Fact May Provide a Defense

By contrast, if you are alleged to have committed a crime but the alleged actions occurred because you were mistaken about some fact or circumstance, this may provide a defense to your criminal charges. For example, theft in South Carolina requires (amongst other elements) an intention on the part of the defendant to permanently deprive the owner of property of the use or benefit of the particular item taken. Suppose that you honestly believed you had spoken with your neighbor and believed your neighbor had agreed to lend you his or her new car for the weekend. Suppose further that your neighbor sees you driving away on Friday afternoon in his or her car and calls the police. The fact you were mistaken about your neighbor’s intentions regarding lending you his or her car may negate the element of the crime of theft requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt that you intended to permanently deprive the owner of his or her car.
Ignorance or a mistake of fact is not an automatic defense, however: you will need to be able to produce some evidence to support your contention that you reasonably or understandably got the facts of a situation wrong in order for the defense to be successful. That is where a Greenville, South Carolina criminal defense attorney can help. Contact the attorneys at David R. Price, Jr., P.A., and allow them to investigate your case. They will uncover any facts or circumstances favorable to your case, thereby increasing the likelihood of a positive outcome in your case. You can reach the law firm of David R. Price, Jr., P.A. by calling directly or by completing the firm’s online contact form.


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