An accused person, therefore, may be rightfully held responsible for such a knowledge of the law as is common to men in general, having no greater natural capacities than himself, and no greater opportunities for learning the law. And he can rightfully be held to no greater knowledge of the law than this. To hold him responsible for a greater knowledge of the law than is common to mankind, when other things are equal, would be gross injustice and cruelty. The mass of mankind can give but little of their attention to acquiring a knowledge of the law. Their other duties in life forbid it. Of course, they cannot investigate abstruse or difficult questions. All that can rightfully be required of each of them, then, is that he exercise such a candid and conscientious judgment as it is common formankind generally to exercise in such matters. If he have done this, it would be monstrous to punish him criminally for his errors; errors not of conscience, but only of judgment. It would also be contrary to the first principles of a free government (that is, a government formed by voluntary association) to punish men in such cases, because it would be absurd to suppose that any man would voluntarily assist to establish or support a govern- [*186] -ment that would punish himself for acts which he himself did not know to be crimes. But a man may reasonably unite with his fellow‑men to maintain a government to punish those acts which he himself considers criminal, and may reasonably acquiesce in his own liability to be punished for such acts. As those are the only grounds on which any one can be supposed to render any voluntary support to a government, it follows that a government formed by voluntary association, and of course having no powers except such as all the associates have consented that it may have, can have no power to punish a man for acts which he did not himself know to be criminal.
The safety of society, which is the only object of the criminal law, requires only that those acts which are understood by mankind at large to be intrinsically criminal, should he punished as crimes. The remaining few (if there are any) may safely be left to go unpunished. Nor does the safety of society require that any individuals, other than those who have sufficient mental capacity to understand that their acts are criminal, should be criminally punished. All others may safely be left to their liability, under the civil law, to compensate for their unintentional wrongs.
THE TRUE INTENT UNMASKED.
The only real object of this absurd and atrocious doctrine, that "ignorance of the law (that is, of crime) excuses no one," and that "everyone is bound to know the criminal law," (that is, bound to know what is a crime,) is to maintain an entirely arbitrary authority on the part of the government, and to deny to the people all right to judge for themselves what their own rights and liberties are. In other words, the whole object of the doctrine is to deny to the people themselves all right to judge what statutes and other acts of the government are consistent or inconsistent with their own rights and liberties; and thus to reduce the people to the condition of mere slaves to a despotic power, such as the people themselves would never have voluntarily established, and the justice of whose laws the people themselves cannot understand.
Under the true trial by jury all tyranny of this kind would be abolished. A jury would not only judge what acts were really criminal, but they would judge of the mental capacity of an accused person, and of his opportunities for understand- [*187] -ing the true character of his conduct. In short, they would judge of his moral intent from all the circumstances of the case, and acquit him, if they had any reasonable doubt that he knew that he was committing a crime.
This principle is clear, because the question for a jury to determine is, whether the accused be guilty, or not guilty. Guilt is a personal quality of the actor, not necessarily involved in the act, but depending also upon the intent or motive with which the act was done. Consequently, the jury must find that he acted from a criminal motive, before they can declare him guilty.
There is no moral justice in, nor any political necessity for, punishing a man for any act whatever that he may have committed, if he have done it without any criminal intent. There can be no moral justice in punishing for such an act, because, there having been no criminal motive, there can have been no other motive which justice can take cognizance of, as demanding or justifying punishment. There can be no political necessity for punishing, to warn against similar acts in future, because, if one man have injured another, however unintentionally, he is liable, and justly liable, to a civil suit for damages; and in this suit he will be compelled to make compensation for the injury, notwithstanding his innocence of any intention to injure. He must bear the consequences of his own act, instead of throwing them upon another, however innocent [*179] he may have been of any intention to do wrong. And the damages he will have to pay will be a sufficient warning to him not to do the like act again.
If it be alleged that there are crimes against the public, (as treason, for example, or any other resistance to government,) for which private persons can recover no damages, and that there is a political necessity for punishing for such offences, even though the party acted conscientiously, the answer is, the government must bear with all resistance that is not so clearly wrong as to give evidence of criminal intent. In other words, the government, in all its acts, must keep itself so clearly within the limits of justice, as that twelve men, taken at random, will all agree that it is in the right, or it must incur the risk of resistance, without any power to punish it. This is the mode in which the trial by jury operates to prevent the government from falling into the hands of a party, or a faction, and to keep it within such limits as all, or substantially all, the people are agreed that it may occupy.
This necessity for a criminal intent, to justify conviction, is proved by the issue which the jury are to try, and the verdict they are to pronounce. The "issue" they are to try is, "guilty,"or "not guilty." And those are the terms they are required to use in rendering their verdicts. But it is a plain falsehood to say that a man is "guilty," unless he have done an act which he knew to be criminal.
This necessity for a criminal intent ‑‑ in other words, for guilt ‑‑ as a preliminary to conviction, makes it impossible that a man can be rightfully convicted for an act that is intrinsically innocent, though forbidden by the government; because guilt is an intrinsic quality of actions and motives, and not one that can be imparted to them by arbitrary legislation. All the efforts of the government, therefore, to "make offences by statute," out of acts that are not criminal by nature, must necessarily be ineffectual, unless a jury will declare a man "guilty" for an act that is really innocent.
The corruption of judges, in their attempts to uphold the arbitrary authority of the government, by procuring the conviction of individuals for acts innocent in themselves, and forbidden only by some tyrannical statute, and the commission [*180] of which therefore indicates no criminal intent, is very apparent.
To accomplish this object, they have in modern times held it to be unnecessary that indictments should charge, as by the common law they were required to do, that an act was done "wickedly," "feloniously," "with malice aforethought," or in any other manner that implied a criminal intent, without which there can be no criminality; but that it is sufficient to charge simply that it was done "contrary to the form of the statute in such case made and provided." This form of indictment proceeds plainly upon the assumption that the government is absolute, and that it has authority to prohibit any act it pleases, however innocent in its nature the act may be. Judges have been driven to the alternative of either sanctioning this new form of indictment, (which they never had any constitutional right to sanction,) or of seeing the authority of many of the statutes of the government fall to the ground; because the acts forbidden by the statutes were so plainly innocent in their nature, that even the government itself had not the face to allege that the commission of them implied or indicated any criminal intent.
To get rid of the necessity of showing a criminal intent, and thereby further to enslave the people, by reducing them to the necessity of a blind, unreasoning submission to the arbitrary will of the government, and of a surrender of all right, on their own part, to judge what are their constitutional and natural rights and liberties, courts have invented another idea, which they have incorporated among the pretended maxims, upon which they act in criminal trials, viz., that "ignorance of the law excuses no one." As if it were in the nature of things possible that there could be an excuse more absolute and complete. What else than ignorance of the law is it that excuses persons under the years of discretion, and men of imbecile minds? What else than ignorance of the law is it that excuses judges themselves for all their erroneous decisions? Nothing. They are every day committing errors, which would be crimes, but for their ignorance of the law. And yet these same judges, who claim to be learned in the law, and who yet could not hold their offices for a day, but for [*181] the allowance which the law makes for their ignorance, are continually asserting it to be a "maxim" that "ignorance of the law excuses no one;" (by which, of course, they really mean that it excuses no one but themselves; and especially that it excuses no unlearned man, who comes before them charged with crime.)
This preposterous doctrine, that "ignorance of the law excuses no one," is asserted by courts because it is an indispensable one to the maintenance of absolute power in the government. It is indispensable for this purpose, because, if it be once admitted that the people have any rights and liberties which the government cannot lawfully take from them, then the question arises in regard to every statute of the government, whether it be law, or not; that is, whether it infringe, or not, the rights and liberties of the people. Of this question every man must of course judge according to the light in his own mind. And no man can be convicted unless the jury find, not only that the statute is law, ‑‑ that it does not infringe the rights and liberties of the people, ‑‑ but also that it was so clearly law, so clearly consistent with the rights and liberties of the people, as that the individual himself, who transgressed it, knew it to be so, and therefore had no moral excuse for transgressing it.
Governments see that if ignorance of the law were allowed to excuse a man for any act whatever, it must excuse him for transgressing all statutes whatsoever, which he himself thinks inconsistent with his rights and liberties. But such a doctrine would of course be inconsistent with the maintenance of arbitrary power by the government; and hence governments will not allow the plea, although they will not confess their true reasons for disallowing it.
The only reasons, (if they deserve the name of reasons), that I ever knew given for the doctrine that ignorance of the law excuses no one, are these:
1. "The reason for the maxim is that of necessity. It prevails, 'not that all men know the law, but because it is an excuse which every man will make, and no man can tell how to confute him.' ‑‑ Selden, (as quoted in the 2d edition of Starkie on Slander, Prelim. Disc., p. 140, note.)" ‑‑ Law Magazine, (London,) vol. 27, p. 97.[*182]
This reason impliedly admits that ignorance of the Law is, intrinsically, an ample and sufficient excuse for a crime; and that the excuse ought to be allowed, if the fact of ignorance could but be ascertained. But it asserts that this fact is incapable of being ascertained, and that therefore there is a necessity for punishing the ignorant and the knowing that is, the innocent and the guilty without discrimination. This reason is worthy of the doctrine it is used to uphold; as if a plea of ignorance, any more than any other plea, must necessarily be believed simply because it is urged; and as if it were not a common and every‑day practice of courts and juries, in both civil and criminal cases, to determine the mental capacity of individuals; as, for example, to determine whether they are of sufficient mental capacity to make reasonable contracts; whether they are lunatic; whether they are compotes mentis, "of sound mind and memory," &. &. And there is obviously no more difficulty in a jury's determining whether an accused person knew the law in a criminal case, than there is in determining any of these other questions that are continually determined in regard to a man's mental capacity. For the question to be settled by the jury is not whether the accused person knew the particular penalty attached to his act, (for at common law no one knew what penalty a jury would attach to an offence,) but whether he knew that his act was intrinsically criminal. If it were intrinsically criminal, it was criminal at common law. If it was not intrinsically criminal, it was not criminal at common law. (At least, such was the general principle of the common law. There may have been exceptions in practice, owing to the fact that the opinions of men, as to what was intrinsically. criminal, may not have been in all cases correct.)
A jury, then, in judging whether an accused person knew his act to be illegal, were bound first to use their own judgments, as to whether the act were intrinsically criminal. If their own judgments told them the act was intrinsically and clearly criminal, they would naturally and reasonably infer that the accused also understood that it was intrinsically criminal, (and consequently illegal,) unless it should appear that he was either below themselves in the scale of intellect, or had [*183] had less opportunities of knowing what acts were criminal. In short, they would judge, from any and every means they might have of judging; and if they had any reasonable doubt that he knew his act to be criminal in itself, they would be bound to acquit him.
The second reason that has been offered for the doctrine that ignorance of the law excuses no one, is this:
"Ignorance of the municipal law of the kingdom, or of the penalty thereby inflicted on offenders, doth not excuse any that is of the age of discretion and compos mentis, from the penalty of the breach of it; because every person, of the age of discretion and compos mentis, is bound to know the law, and presumed to do so. "Ignorantia eorum,, quae quis scire tenetur non excusat." (Ignorance of those things which every one is bound to know, does not excuse.) ‑‑ 1 Hale's Pleas of the Crown, 42. Doctor and Student, Dialog. 2, ch. 46. Law Magazine, (London,) vol. 27, p. 97.
The sum of this reason is, that ignorance of the law excuses no one, (who is of the age of discretion and is compos mentis,) because every such person "is bound to know the law." But this is giving no reason at all for the doctrine, since saying that a man "is bound to know the law," is only saying, in another form, that "ignorance of the law does not excuse him." There is no difference at all in the two ideas.
To say, therefore, that "ignorance of the law excuses no one, because every one is bound to know the law," is only equivalent to saying that "ignorance of the law excuses no one, because ignorance of the law excuses no one." It is merely reasserting the doctrine, without giving any reason at all.
And yet these reasons, which are really no reasons at all, are the only ones, so far as I know, that have ever been offered for this absurd and brutal doctrine.
Contemptible police tactics - Cops raid the home of a licensed medical marijuana provider in Washington, handcuff the fourteen year old son and put a gun to his head, and search the nineteen year old daughter and take the contents of her mickey-mouse wallet.
How To Survive Traffic Stops in America, Submit, Instantly! - What the cops want is immediate obedience and submission. Many cops are ex-military and view the civilian motorists of America about like they viewed the hapless peasants of Iraq and Afghanistan, that is, with contempt, not as fellow citizens deserving of civility and respect. It is a possibly lethal mistake to do anything other than submit, instantly and obey! Or be ready to shoot first. But aim high.