Can I Be Charged With a Crime I Didn't Know Was Illegal?

by Elizabeth Marcant
Prison guard esicort inmate throught corridor in jail corridor for booking after arrest.

Reviewed by Carina Jenkins, J.D.

You may have heard that ignorance is not a defense. In most cases, this is true, and you can be charged with a crime even if you didn't realize you were committing one. However, in certain cases, not realizing your actions are criminal may help support your defense strategy. 

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Can You Be Charged With a Crime If You Didn't Know Something Was Illegal?

The answer is yes. You can be charged with a crime even if you didn't realize you were doing something illegal. Here are some examples that include ignorance of the law or a crime that could lead to criminal charges:

  • Someone who has a legal firearm in one state carries it to another state or jurisdiction. They don't realize that the laws of the other jurisdiction don't allow them to carry the firearm legally. They could be charged with a crime even though they don't realize they've committed one.
  • A person works for a company that has a petty cash drawer. They don't understand the concept of petty cash and think it's available for their personal use. They take money from the drawer to make some personal purchases. This could result in them facing a charge of theft or embezzlement.
  • Someone has a prescription for painkillers. Their friend is experiencing a headache that just won't go away. The person shares the prescription with their friend, not realizing it is illegal to do so. In cases where this leads to an injury or other issue and is reported as a crime, the individual could face charges. 
  • An employee of a company shares confidential business information about their job with a friend during a rant session over drinks. The friend uses that information to make decisions about buying or selling shares in the company's stock. This could result in a charge of insider trading, even though the individuals may not realize they engaged in illegal activity. 

Is 'I Didn't Know' an Excuse That Will Hold Up in Court?

Stating that you didn't know something was a crime typically isn't a great defense in court. This is known as ignorance of the law, which is a mistake of the law and not a defense in criminal cases. You may, however, be able to sincerely plead your ignorance as a factor in sentencing if you're convicted. If the judge believes you truly weren't aware that something was illegal and that you didn't have any motive to commit a crime or harm others, they may be more willing to consider lenient or alternative sentencing in a case.

Sometimes, however, ignorance can be a defense. This is true when your lack of knowledge results in a mistake of fact (as opposed to a mistake of law).

Imagine, for example, that someone drives a 2019 blue Honda CRV. They leave a store after shopping and get into a 2019 blue Honda CRV. The keys are in the car, and they think to themselves that they were careless and left them in the car. However, this is not, in fact, their 2019 blue Honda CRV. They drive off, effectively stealing a car that isn't theirs. This could, in some situations, result in a charge of car theft.

However, this is a case involving a mistake of fact because the person believes they're driving their own car. If they were, no crime would have been committed. Because they believe in a series of events that doesn't involve a crime, they may be deemed innocent of the crime.

For a mistake of fact defense to hold up, you typically need to demonstrate that you believed certain things sincerely even though they weren't, in fact, true. These beliefs usually need to be somewhat reasonable, or you must be able to account for why you sincerely believed unreasonable facts to be true. In these circumstances, you lack the requisite intent required for a criminal conviction under the law. 

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How Can a Defense Attorney Help Me in This Case?

A defense attorney can help anytime someone faces criminal charges. They can explain the nature of the charges and help you understand what your options are for a criminal defense. In cases that involve either ignorance of the law or a mistake of fact, they can help you understand how your lack of knowledge or intent can be used to your advantage during the case. This might include making an argument for your innocence or negotiating for a more lenient sentence or reduced charges in the case. 

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