Michael Cottone has published an article in the Tennessee Law Review describing how literally no one now can keep the centuries-old principle ignorantia legis neminem excusat i.e. ignorance of the law excuses no one.
He noted that it was a great thing in its day when laws were few and based on a commonly understood morality.
Today, however, with the advent of “regulatory crime”, which are laws written to enforce administrative schemes and called “public welfare offenses”, literally nobody can know what all the laws are.
He cited as an example a guy who got lost on a snowmobile during a blizzard and ended up on federal land where snowmobiling was illegal. Rather than be cut slack he was prosecuted. That sort of thing does not happen in a just society.
Traditionally one needed intent to become a criminal.
“Tellingly, no exact count of the number of federal statutes that impose criminal sanctions has ever been given, but estimates from the last fifteen years range from 3,600 to approximately 4,500,” Cottone said.
Cottone notes that Congress, according to one study, enacts 60 new criminal statues a year and this does not include new regulations that carry a criminal penalty.
“Our criminal justice system fails to be “understandable” so as to comport with the internal morality of law—especially because of the highly technical nature of regulations,” he wrote.
Reforms are needed desperately.
Abuse of the legal process is by definition unjust and those entrusted to uphold it yet abuse it will face an inevitable backlash.
Cottone’s article can be found as a pdf download at this link.
Ignorantia Legis A Good Excuse