13 St. John's J. Legal Comment. 635 (1998-1999)
The Death of a Maxim: Ignorance of Law Is No Excuse (Killed by Money, Guns and a Little Sex)

handle is hein.journals/sjjlc13 and id is 643 raw text is: THE DEATH OF A MAXIM: IGNORANCE OF
Ignorance of the Law excuses no man; not that all men
know the law, but because it's an excuse every man will
plead, and no man can tell how to refute him.1
Ignorance of the law is no excuse2 for crime except when the
statute that criminalizes the behavior allows ignorance as an ex-
cuse.3 This maxim has played a fundamental role in the inter-
pretive process of criminal law, determining the meaning of
criminal statutes.4 Another fundamental principle is the belief in
the legislature's rationality. That is, the legislature speaks ra-
tionally through its choices, and therefore, any ambiguity may be
construed as sensible. This notion colors all interpretive tech-
niques from grammar to legislative history. However, the actual
existence of the rational legislature is often belied by a history of
errors, ellipses, and oddities produced by these bodies. Recog-
nizing that the monolithic, legislative, rational writer is a myth,
it is nonetheless theoretically beneficial because of its salutary
I John Selden (1584-1654).
* Associate Professor of Law, Duquesne University School of Law. Georgetown Law
Center, J.D. 1977.
2 Ignorance of the law is no excuse is taken from the latin phrases ignorantia legis
neminem excusat or ignorantia juris non excusat.
3 For example the ancient crime of larceny has a legal knowledge mental state ele-
ment. If the actor actually believes the property taken is his, that legal error vitiates the
crimes. See State v. Quisenberry, 639 S.W.2d 579, 583 (Mo. 1982) (discussing defense of
claim of right to negative mental element of crime of larceny); State v. Guice, 262 N.J.
Super. 607, 615 (1993) (discussing statutory mistake of law defense); Commonwealth v.
Meinhart, 173 Pa. Super. 495, 498-99 (1953) (discussing statutory interpretation of crime
of larceny).
4 See People v. McLaughlin, 245 P.2d 1076, 1080 (Cal. Ct. App. 1952) (stating that
no doctrine is more universal or of more ancient lineage in the law than ignorance of the
law excuses no one. That doctrine still strides the world.); People v. Marrero, 69 N.Y.2d.
382, 384 (N.Y. 1987) (noting that the starting point of our analysis is that... ignorance
of the law is no excuse).


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