What to Do if You Are Being Prosecuted for a Criminal Act That You Didn’t Know Of

The world of law can be a very tricky and confusing place to navigate. With so many rules in regulations in place, it can be difficult to understand when and how you are or aren’t abiding by these societal laws in place. It might be hard, but it’s still good that we have so many safeguards in place to protect us from others, protect others from our behavior, and protect our things, but that still doesn’t guarantee that we can grasp it all.

Even then, no one expects us to understand this full scope of the law because lawyers spend years and years in school getting an education to learn even a minor percentage of it, and with that, they often learn a specialization. It would be foolish to think that you, an average person, need to know everything there is about the legal codes, statutes, precedents, and other factors that help you be a law-abiding citizen, but there are problems that arise.

One such issue is being prosecuted for crimes that you are completely unaware of. Criminal acts occur everyday and do not go prosecuted, often because they may not be as glaringly apparent or damaging to everyday life. However, there have been plenty of times where someone has committed a crime without knowing and been prosecuted. If you are ever in this situation, here is what you need to do.

Is it Possible to Be Charged and Prosecuted for a Crime You Didn’t Know?

To answer it shortly, yes, you can very much be charged, arrested, and prosecuted for a crime you didn’t know about. This happens every day, and to varying degrees, so it’s imperative that every person who believes themselves to be a law-abiding citizen understand what can be at stake. One common example of people committing a crime that they may not know about is jaywalking. Jaywalking is crossing an intersection, street, road, or any traffic lane without taking proper care to do so in a safe manner, hence why crosswalks and signs exist. Many people are unaware of what the actual definition is, so they simply cross without realizing it.

This is not often a serious crime. Many people do this when there are no cars around and they know they just need to get to the other side of the road quickly. A more apt one would be speeding, and different states have different speeding laws so someone traveling through Texas from Colorado should be aware of these. This Galveston Criminal Defense Attorney discusses the importance of being aware of the law, and how much it can get you in trouble if you commit crimes you don’t know about. It is entirely possible to be charged and prosecuted due to unawareness.

When Is It Possible to Be Acquitted of Charges?

This is where it starts to get a little more tricky. Mistaking the law, or ignorance of the law is not considered a defense. Judges and officers of the law do not believe that this is a suitable defense because of the fact that there is an obligation of people to know what is and isn’t legal. What makes it so confusing are the examples of jaywalking or speeding that people often break every day, along with things like drinking in public. They may not be charged, certainly not prosecuted, but a citation or fine can be issued. This isn’t enough in many cases as people believe it’s a slap on the wrist, not an actual crime.

Being ignorant of the law is not an excuse, but there are times when you may be acquitted after providing a suitable defense with supporting arguments and evidence. The mistake of fact is often considered a suitable defense and can play a role in a serious criminal charge like selling an illegal substance under the assumption it was a different, legal substance. This can be considered suitable because there wasn’t ignorance, but misinformation. In many other cases, the mistake of fact is now suitable, like statutory rape.

When is it Not Possible to Be Acquitted?

As mentioned, there is a very fine line between ignoring the law and mistake of fact, so it’s hard to discern between the two, especially if the law is either very touchy or often goes uncharged, or if you are unsure which category you fall under. The defense of mistake of fact is tough and relies on the assumption that you were not committing an illegal act with the intent to commit an illegal act. There is still the argument that the intent itself is part of the equation of committing a crime, but many judges will take into consideration the fact that action may be more important in this instance. 

You have read the examples that are pertinent to criminal charges where a mistake of fact would not be sufficient defense. These are acts that are, again, criminal in nature on a more serious level. Jaywalking vs. statutory rape are very different in terms of victimless vs. victim, but also for the fact that the defense is weak in a serious case because intent and action were both present, regardless of knowing the facts about a partner’s real age. There is a better chance of factual mistake over legal mistake being a stronger defense, but not in every instance. It’s always hard to argue that you didn’t know an existing crime was illegal before you did it.

What is Action vs. Intent?

Going back to the argument of action vs. intent is an important one in the understanding of prosecution for crimes unbeknownst to you. Action (actus reus) and intent (mens rea) are the two elements of any crime, big or small. The intent is considered always present in a crime, whereas action may be dependent on factors regarding the intent and the crime. There is something called a strict liability crime, which is where the intent is irrelevant and the action required of you to commit the crime is at the forefront of the issue. This would be someone blowing a stop sign and the arresting officer finds there is a valid reason for the action. 

Beyond this, intent hinges on things that span knowledge, recklessness, and negligence. These vary in that duty of care was not present, or consequences were brought on by your actions, or your actions caused consequences that were not your goal. The intent of a crime is much more relevant than the action, but it’s not always possible to dismiss an action as a factor in the intent to commit one, especially under the guise of being unaware of illegal or immoral actions.

What if You Did Not Commit the Crime in Question?

This is an entirely different argument, but it’s worth mentioning as some people may confuse the two instances. Committing a crime that you didn’t know about is still illegal, whereas being accused of a crime you did not commit is an example of miscarriage of justice. As with any criminal case that results in a charge and potential prosecution, you should always seek legal guidance. Having a lawyer is the first step in getting yourself put into a position where you can defend yourself.

So again, committing a crime and being ignorant of its legal culpability is far different from being charged for a crime you did not commit. This can be as a result of a crime someone believes you committed and one you did not know was illegal, but in any case, hire an attorney immediately.

What Are the Steps You Take in a Criminal Defense Case?

As mentioned just prior, the first step is to hire an attorney. Without question, you should know that you are not to discuss the case with anyone. Not your family, not your friends, certainly not on social media or with the media. You should disclose if you are being charged or taken into custody to family members as they may be able to help with bail/bond or hiring an attorney, but don’t go into too many details.

From there, you will likely be taken into custody and placed in jail, not prison, which is where the accused go after they have been prosecuted in court. You will be read your rights upon arrest, taken into custody, and a court date will be made. There may be a pre-trial hearing to determine your readiness to stand trial in court. You will discuss with your attorney and develop your defense, and from there, you will then stand trial to give your testimony and defense. This is the most basic synopsis of a typical criminal defense proceeding so it’s good to know how it works to prepare in case you have to go through this unfortunate time.

What Are Examples of Unintentional Legal Violations?

Again, it isn’t as straight-forward as you think because, by definition, any law can be broken under the guise of unintentional violation or mistake of fact/law. The difference is always whether there is a credible defense towards the unintentional breaking of a law. If you need a good example of common instances of unintentional violations, an unintentional tort is something to look at. Tort law, as you may know, is a civil wrong wherein an individual(s) suffers losses as a result of damages or harm. With the exception of contractual dispute cases, every civil suit is a tort.

However, the difference here is that unintentional tort are usually instances where someone is negligent in a way that should be deemed ignorant of the law, not a mistake of fact. Not providing a helmet for a child skiing, resulting in the child getting a concussion, would be an unintentional tort. Committing a crime you didn’t know of is much different. So it’s not easy to simply say that there are unintentional examples of breaking the law, but more so the argument of the criminal elements. Intent and action must always be considered, regardless of whether you realized something was or wasn’t a crime.

What Rights Should I Know About if Arrested?

If you do, and we hope it does not occur, get arrested for a crime you did not know you committed, there are quite a few rights you need to know about during the process, as well as during the proceedings that will follow. The first is that the arresting officer(s) must read your Miranda Rights, which go over the basics of your right to an attorney, right to remain silent because what you say may be used against you in court, right to have an attorney appointed to you, etc. You’ve likely heard them in movies or TV shows and they do exist and must be read to you. You have constitutional rights as well which mean the right to a trial within a reasonable time and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, release on bail if there is no reason to be in custody, and you do not have to testify at your trial.

These are the primary rights you will want to know, while other things are much more common sense but should still be practiced. They have already been mentioned but bear repeating. Do not disclose information on the case as this is a good way of jeopardizing information and possibly incriminating yourself. Don’t speak to the media, don’t post on social media, and only relay what your lawyer tells you is okay. They’re your hired professional services for a reason so you need to take their advice seriously.

Everyone always pictures what would happen if they were arrested for a crime they never committed but rarely do people think about the implications of committing a crime without even realizing it is illegal. This is a separate and equally messy situation and you need to consider all of the factors that go into play, it’s important to understand what to do if it ever occurs. Now that you have some base knowledge, you can continue to understand how the overall legal system works to help protect your future self.

Interesting Related Article: “How Much Does It Cost to Hire a Criminal Defense Lawyer?