"I didn't know." This is the excuse many criminals give when they did something that violated the law. The excuse is most often used when a misdemeanor occurred and the misdemeanant did not know what he did was wrong.
An example would be not coming to a complete stop at a stop sign, which is a crime in Las Vegas, Nevada . A person from California , where rolling stops are legal, might not know that they are illegal here. It does not matter, however, that the person did not know because ignorance of the law is no excuse.
Most often people feel that their lack of knowledge ought to be an excuse to pardon them from their behavior when the crime was what we in the legal profession call "malum prohibitum", which is Latin for "bad because its prohibited".
Malum prohibitum laws come about when our law makers have, in their infinite wisdom, decided that some actions or inactions should be unlawful because they harm or have the potential to harm society in someway. An action or inaction is deemed wrong for public order even it there is no discernable victim.
A rolling stop in Nevada could be dangerous, so it is prohibited and you are a criminal if you violate this law whether you knew better or not and whether an accident occurred or not. The problem is that there are so many laws created by so many law makers, that no one can really knows them all and many otherwise law-abiding citizens become criminals.
Most often, malum prohibitum crimes are also classified as "strict liability" crimes in which the criminal's intention does not matter. It does not matter that you knew that you were committing a crime, all that matters is that a crime was committed. You did not see the speed limit was 25 miles an hour when you were flying by at 75 miles an hour. Too bad, reckless driving-no defense.
Another common example of malum prohibit crimes would be statutory rape. States set age limit on who can have sex with whom. If an adult has sex with a 13 year old and the age of consent is 16, like in Nevada , then the adult is guilty of statutory rape even though the adult thought the minor was 18. A mistake of fact is not an excuse for a strict liability crime.
On the other hand, we have another category of crime which is called "malum in se." Malum in se means "evil in and of itself". These crimes are crimes that people should know are wrong because their conscience tells them so. Our lawmakers have codified these crimes, but even if they hadn't, we would still know the crime to be wrong based on our morality. Such crimes include murder, rape, mayhem, robbery, arson, and others. One problem is that many of our young are not taught morality-anywhere.
Malum in se crimes are generally not strict liability crimes because we want to make sure that the person who did the act had the intent of committing it. In the case of murder, a person is found dead and another person is charged with the murder. The charged person says that the death was accidental and that he did not intend for the person do die. Because murderers have done the ultimate human atrocity, we want to punish them severely; however, we want first to make sure they were in fact responsible.
Therefore, the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that in fact the death was the result of an intentional act and that the desired result was death. The prosecutor has the burden of proving the criminal elements of "mens rea," "actus reus", and a concurrence of actus reus and mens rea. (aka: mental intent, physical act, and the coming together of the mental intent and physical act.)
The above is the background for the lesson of this article, which is that our public schools do not teach our students to know the basics of the law of the land. As a result, young hoodlums go too far in carrying out their little crimes because they do not know the full ramifications of their actions.
Many criminal lawyers believe that there is one crime where the excuse of "I didn't know" really ought to be taken seriously, and that is the crime of felony murder. Unless you are a crime buff or have gone to law school, you probably do not have the first clue of what felony murder is. And yet, many young thugs who are just high on the idea of doing a minor, yet forbidden, crime end up guilty of felony murder which carries, in many jurisdictions, the same punishment as cold blooded, first degree murder.
You see, even though the word "murder" is in the name and murder is ordinarily characterized as a "malum in se" crime requiring mental intent, in the United States we treat felony murder like a strict liability crime.
The best way to describe felony murder is by way of example:
Three eighteen year old high school seniors on Spring break decide they want to have fun and do what they've seen in the movies. They decide to go hold up a convenience store with a gun one of them "borrowed" from his father. The kids figure if they get caught the worst time they would do is maybe five years, but the chances of them getting caught are slim if they keep quiet about the crime. They make a pact that it would be their little secret.
They enter the convenience store with masks. Three other people are in the store: the clerk, a customer in the isle, and a gambler at a slot machine. One of the boys whips out the gun and demands that the clerk give them all the money in the cash register.
The gambler immediately has a heart attack from fear of the hold up. The gambler dies.
The customer in the isle whips out her gun and shoots one of the gangsta boys. The hoodlum dies.
The boy holding the gun panics and fires, striking the clerk. The clerk dies.
The two remaining hoodlums flee but are later identified when the bullet from the clerk's body is identified as belonging to the gun owned by the boy's father.
Question: How many murders can the two boys be charged with? The answer is three. Even though the gun toting hoodlum actually only killed the clerk, both boys can be charged with three murders because three deaths occurred during the felony of armed robbery.
The gambler died of a heart attack that he would not have died of but for the robbery-felony murder.
The hoodlum died when the customer shot him and this would not have happened if the boys hadn't held up the store-felony murder.
The clerk was accidentally killed by the hoodlum who panicked, but it does not matter because the death occurred during the commission of a felony, thus felony murder. The boy who did not fire the gun is still guilty of felony murder just as if he was the one holding it.
The two surviving hoodlums could be locked up for the rest of their lives for an indiscretion they did at 18 years old due in part because of the negligence of our education system. Our educators failed to inform our youth that even a crime where no one was supposed to get hurt could end up being felony murder. Our prisons are crowded with some of these wrong-headed kids who might have otherwise been good citizens.
As a nation, we punish our criminals as a deterrent to prevent other would be criminals from committing the crimes. How can we expect to deter would-be criminals if we do not educate our young people? Some of what is taught in law school should definitely be taught in junior high and again in high school.
Do not commit a felony such as robbery or rape because if a death results, you are a murderer whether that was your intent or not. Felony murder is tried by the prosecutors like a malum prohibitum traffic citation, but punished severely just like malum in se murder. The excuse of "I didn't know" will not help you even if you are justified in believing it would because of the failure of our education system. Felony murder is an example of what happens when our government's justice system meets up with our government's education system-tragedy!