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Debate Concludes: The need for a reasonable mistake of law defense

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by Paul J. Larkin, Jr.

Bill Otis, a highly respected former prosecutor and now a law professor, argues that a mistake of law defense would hamper the government's ability to enforce the criminal law. I respect Bill and always value his opinions, but this time he is mistaken.

Bill notes that regulatory crimes are problematic because administrative officials are not directly accountable to the electorate. That is true, but there is an additional and bigger problem: Regulatory offenses oftentimes involve a network of one or more intricately worded statutes and a boatload of hyper-complex regulations. It is easy to understand a law prohibiting a street crime, but far harder to comply with a regulatory offense because the line between lawful and unlawful regulated conduct can be indistinct. No amount of murder is permissible, and no one can obtain a license to steal, but a party can obtain a license to dispose of used oil and other types of waste that are the unavoidable byproduct of legitimate business activities. In fact, administrative laws assume that some regulated conduct is permissible; those laws just limit when, where, how often, and by whom certain it can be done. The problem lies in knowing what can and cannot be done. Is this used oil a "waste"? If so, is it a "hazardous waste"? Or is it a "recyclable material"? Agencies need complex rules, oftentimes requiring considerable scientific or technical knowledge, to regulate industrialization. But those same complex rules can be impossible for the average lawyer--let alone the average person--to understand. A mistake of law defense forces the government clearly to define crimes before someone can be held liable for committing one.

Bill argues that a mistake of law defense would enable crooked defendants, aided by unscrupulous lawyers, to escape responsibility for conduct that any reasonable person would have known was unlawful. The concern with manufactured defenses is legitimate, but overstated. If a government civil inspector notifies someone that his conduct is unlawful, the government can use that notice as proof of guilt if the defendant repeats that conduct. Also, if you place the burden of proof on the defendant, you effectively compel him to testify at trial to establish a mistake-of-law defense. Once he testifies, the prosecution can cross-examine him, and the jury can decide if he is a con artist who connived with a shyster. If the judge finds that a mistake of law defense is incredible--that is, no reasonable person could buy it--the judge need not instruct the jury on it. Finally, if corporate wrongdoing is a concern, a mistake of law defense can be limited to individuals and exclude corporations. In sum, Bill's concern can be met without turning every reasonable mistake of law into a crime.

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Project Manager,
Center for Legal Policy at the
Manhattan Institute
igorodetski@manhattan-institute.org

Katherine Lazarski
Press Officer,
Manhattan Institute
klazarski@manhattan-institute.org

 

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