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Criminal Law Blog

Can You Be Punished for a Crime You Didn’t Know You Committed?

December 10, 2018

One aspect of the criminal justice system that is often misunderstood by the average person is the role of personal responsibility in knowing and following the law. For example, let’s say you have been pulled over by the police for speeding. Your first inclination might be to inform the officer that you did not know you were speeding, or maybe that you didn’t know what the speed limit was in that area. Most likely, the officer will inform you that ignorance of the law is not an excuse for breaking the law, and you will be on your way with a citation. But what happens when you violate more serious laws—perhaps those that have potential jail time and significant fines attached? In these cases, you can still be punished for crimes, even if you weren’t aware that what you were doing was a crime.


Ignorance of the Law vs. Mistake of Facts

It’s generally accepted that any person should be aware enough of the law to know when they’re violating it. Thus, if you arrive in court with a defense based on the fact that you didn’t know the law, then you are likely to end up receiving a conviction with an unfavorable sentence. If, however, you mistook facts related to the crime in question, you can build a reasonable defense. Here is an example:


Jerry is allergic to peanuts, and Ralph fed him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Jerry immediately went into severe anaphylactic shock and could have died without emergency medical attention. If Ralph had prior knowledge of Jerry’s peanut allergy, he could potentially be charged with attempted murder. However, if Ralph had thought he’d seen Jerry eating peanuts in the past, he would have been unaware of this allergy, and feeding him the sandwich was a simple honest mistake. Therefore, Ralph’s defense lawyer could argue that had Ralph known about Jerry’s allergy, he would have acted differently, and no crime would have been committed.


There are countless situations where misunderstanding key facts in a crime may have significantly altered the outcome. That’s why it’s important to work closely with a criminal defense attorney to sort out all the details of your case as well as your intentions and knowledge of the act in question.  


Unintentional Violations of the Law

Ideally, every law would be written with such detail and clarity that no other interpretations of that law could be reasonably made. Unfortunately, there are a lot of gray areas, and those can lead to unintentional violations of the law. Here is a look at some situations where you might be breaking the law without realizing it:

  • Carrying a concealed weapon without a permit or carrying a weapon into a restricted area, such as a school or government building
  • Sharing prescription medication with a family member
  • Drinking or being intoxicated in public
  • Jaywalking
  • Failing to update your driver’s license after moving
  • Participating in a high-stakes poker game at a coworker’s home


In any one of these situations, you could be arrested and charged with a crime. While your best defense against a conviction is staying within the bounds of the law, it is not always so easy to do so. That’s why you should never hesitate to call a lawyer as soon as you have been arrested for a crime, even if you don’t think you are guilty of any wrongdoing.


Disagreement with the Law

Another common point of confusion for the average citizen is recognizing the validity of a certain law. For example, many adults in Arizona smoke marijuana even though it is still illegal for recreational use. Those individuals would likely contest the basis of the illegal status of the drug, so they choose to break those laws. However, stating that you disagree with the law and that’s why you did not follow the law will not be an excuse that holds up in court.


Inability to Follow the Law or Understand Right from Wrong

There is one possibility of mounting a defense based on an inability to follow the law: An insanity defense. An insanity defense can be applied in several ways. Most often, it will be positioned that a defendant did not understand what he or she did to break the law or failed to distinguish right from wrong because of a documented mental disease or defect. However, other instances of this defense may be mounted based on irresistible impulses caused by a mental disease, which could not be controlled at the time a crime was committed, even if the individual knew they were doing something wrong. It should also be noted that Arizona is one of the most difficult states to mount an insanity defense, because the criteria for this type of defense to be valid are so strict in this state.


Understanding Your Rights upon Arrest

Misunderstandings of facts and misinterpretations of the law do happen. If you are arrested and you are not sure that you’ve committed a crime, it’s easy to think that you can talk your way out of the arrest and be on your way. However, this is a critical mistake. When you are arrested, you have a certain set of rights. These rights include the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. You should immediately invoke your rights upon being arrested, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the arrest. Do not say anything to the police beyond basic personal information and a request for your attorney to be present. During interrogation, police will often try to get information from you by reassuring you that you can clear things up right away by simply telling the truth. Unfortunately, any information you divulge could be directly put to use in the case against you, especially if you speak freely thinking that you are innocent or that no crime has occurred.

When you have been arrested in Arizona, your first call should be to the office of Janet Altschuler. Ms. Altschuler has practiced as defense attorney in Tucson for more than 2 decades, so she understands exactly how to navigate the criminal justice system. Protect yourself and protect your rights by calling her today!

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