It is a maxim of the common law that there can be no crime without a criminal intent. And it is a perfectly clear principle, although one which judges have in a great measure overthrown in practice, that jurors are to judge of the moral intent of an accused person, and hold him guiltless, whatever his act, unless they find him to have acted with a criminal intent; that is, with a design to do what he knew to be criminal.
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 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 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 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.) In 2011, the man or woman need not even appear.
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 everyday 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 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. Forget killing cops, first we kill all the attorneys. And spare the lawyers.