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Ignorance Of The Law Is No Excuse – What Does This Really Mean Under Colorado Criminal Law?

By H. Michael Steinberg Colorado Criminal Defense Lawyer – Attorney

Ignorance Of The Law Is No Defense - What Does This Really Mean Under Colorado Criminal LawIgnorance Of The Law Is No Excuse – What Does This Really Mean Under Colorado Criminal Law? One often hear this phrase in life – but have you ever asked yourself what it really means? Where did the phrase Ignorance Of The Law Is No Excuse come from and how does it apply – or not apply – to your Colorado criminal case.

While I have written about Colorado this subject matter before – I have not written enough about this complex area of law. Understanding defenses to criminal charges is critical to a successful outcome of any Colorado criminal case.

The Latin variation of this ancient doctrine is:

Ignorantia juris non excusat or ignorantia legis neminem excusat

Known as a common law “maxim” the general rule of law is ignorance or mistake of law is no excuse. This maxim is believed by many laypersons as ABSOLUTE. Like other myths of law – it is NOT. There are important exceptions to the rule.

This maxim is founded on the deeply-rooted principle that ignorance of the law or mistake of law is no defense to criminal prosecution because the law itself is definite and knowable and at we are PRESUMED to know the law… as the alternative would be untenable.

What I hear from the people I represent are variations of “I did not know this – or that – was illegal. That notion is also understandable and gives rise to frustrations on both sides of the law.

Colorado’s Answer To The Mistake Of Law Issue – An Affirmative Defense Statute – § 18-1-504(3), C.R.S.

The Colorado State Legislature long ago created a statute (a law) that “codifies” this issue and they labeled this type of “mistake” as an “an affirmative defense.” § 18-1-504(3), C.R.S.

The Mistake of Law Affirmative Defense

A “mistake of law” defense arises when a Defendant’s mistaken belief that conduct does not, as a matter of law, constitute criminal activity is recognized under Colorado Law. Clear as mud.

Put another way, a person is not relieved of criminal liability because of a mistake of law unless the conduct is permitted by statute, administrative regulation, or an official written interpretation § 18-1-504(2). Absent this circumstance, ignorance of the law is not a defense to criminal charges.

Stated a little differently, even a sincere but mistaken belief as to whether particular conduct constitutes an offense is not a defense to prosecution for such conduct under this statute unless the conduct is in fact permitted by statute, administrative regulation or judicial decision.

This Defense – Mistake of Law –  is known as an AFFIRMATIVE DEFENSE.

Here is a reprint of the Statute that addresses the Defense of Mistake of Law in Colorado:

§ 18-1-504. Effect of Ignorance or Mistake upon Culpability

(1) A person is not relieved of criminal liability for conduct because he engaged in that conduct under a mistaken belief of fact, unless:

(a) It negatives the existence of a particular mental state essential to commission of the offense; or

(b) The statute defining the offense or a statute relating thereto expressly provides that a factual mistake or the mental state resulting therefrom constitutes a defense or exemption; or

(c) The factual mistake or the mental state resulting therefrom is of a kind that supports a defense of justification as defined in sections 18-1-701 to 18-1-707.

(2) A person is not relieved of criminal liability for conduct because he engages in that conduct under a mistaken belief that it does not, as a matter of law, constitute an offense, unless the conduct is permitted by one or more of the following:

(a) A statute or ordinance binding in this state;

(b) An administrative regulation, order, or grant of permission by a body or official authorized and empowered to make such order or grant the permission under the laws of the state of Colorado;

(c) An official written interpretation of the statute or law relating to the offense, made or issued by a public servant, agency, or body legally charged or empowered with the responsibility of administering, enforcing, or interpreting a statute, ordinance, regulation, order, or law. If such interpretation is by judicial decision, it must be binding in the state of Colorado.

(3) Any defense authorized by this section is an affirmative defense.

Here is a BREAKDOWN Of The Mistake Of Law Instruction To The Jury At A Colorado Criminal Trial

Effect of Ignorance or Mistake upon Culpability (Mistaken Belief of Law)

The evidence presented in this case has raised the affirmative defense of “mistaken belief of law,” as a defense to [insert name(s) of offense(s)].

The defendant’s conduct was legally authorized if:

1. the defendant engaged in the prohibited conduct under a mistaken belief that his [her] conduct did not, as a matter of law, constitute an offense, and

2. the conduct was permitted by: (any of the following situations)

[a statute or ordinance binding in this state] [an administrative regulation, order, or grant of permission by a body or official authorized and empowered to make such order or grant the permission under the laws of the state of Colorado] [an official written interpretation of the statute or law relating to the offense, made or issued by a public servant, agency, or body legally charged or empowered with the responsibility of administering, enforcing, or interpreting a statute, ordinance, regulation, order, or law which, if by judicial decision, was binding in the state of Colorado].

The prosecution has the burden to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant’s conduct was not legally authorized by this defense. In order to meet this burden of proof, the prosecution must disprove, beyond a reasonable doubt, at least one of the above numbered conditions.

An Alternative Description For The “Mistake Of Law” Exception To The General Rule (Ignorance Is No Excuse) – Entrapment by Estoppel

Another area of exploration of the Mistake Of Law Defense is the defense of “entrapment by estoppel.” This defense has many other more familiar names such as “official misleading,” “quasi-entrapment,” “executive estoppel,” and “due process defense.”

Here is the typical scenario: A person, who wishes to comply with the law, seeks and obtains an opinion from a government official or other authorized representative as to how to proceed in a given situation to try to make certain that their conduct remain within the law.

Under these circumstances “fundamental fairness” or, more familiarly “due process,” demands that there be no criminal liability when the advice sought turns out to be wrong.

The Courts refer to the situation as ‘‘reasonable reliance,” or ‘‘good faith reliance on a State actor’s advice.” People who act in compliance with the government’s interpretation of a law, (even when that interpretation is erroneous), lack the moral culpability necessary to justify a criminal conviction. To hold them criminally liable would then “chill” otherwise lawful behavior and undermine society’s confidence in our government.

The Elements Of Entrapment By Estoppel In Colorado

The basic elements to successfully raise the defense of Entrapment By Estoppel are that the Defendant must show:

(1) the legality of the conduct was officially authorized by a government agent,

(2) the accused relied on this acknowledgment,

(3) the reliance was reasonable, and

(4) given the reliance, prosecution would be unfair.

Raising The “Entrapment by Estoppel” Defense In Colorado

The defense of “entrapment by estoppel ” can be raised in FOUR basic ways:

The Defense is raised by:

(1) filing a pretrial motion to dismiss;

(2) requesting an instruction on entrapment by estoppel;

(3) filing a motion for a judgment of acquittal; or

(4) making the defense part of a conditional guilty plea.

Ignorance Of The Law Is No Excuse – What Does This Really Mean Under Colorado Criminal Law?

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The reader is admonished that Colorado criminal law, like criminal law in every state and at the Federal level, changes constantly. The article appearing above was accurate at the time it was drafted but it cannot account for changes occurring after it was uploaded.

If, after reading this article, you have questions about your case and would like to consider retaining our law firm, we invite you to contact us at the Steinberg Colorado Criminal Defense Law Firm – 303-627-7777.

Never stop fighting – never stop believing in yourself and your right to due process of law. You will not be alone in court, H. Michael at your side every step of the way – advocating for justice and the best possible result in your case.

H. Michael Steinberg 30 Plus Years As A Colorado Criminal Defense LawyerABOUT THE AUTHOR: H. Michael Steinberg – Email The Author at hmsteinberg@hotmail.com – A Denver Colorado Criminal Defense Lawyer – or call his office at 303-627-7777 during business hours – or call his cell if you cannot wait and need his immediate assistance – 720-220-2277. Attorney H. Michael Steinberg is passionate about criminal defense. His extensive knowledge and experience of Colorado Criminal Law gives him the edge you need to properly handle your case.

“A good criminal defense lawyer is someone who devotes themselves to their client’s case from beginning to end, always realizing that this case is the most important thing in that client’s life.”

You should be careful to make a responsible choice in selecting a Colorado Criminal Defense Lawyer – and we encourage you to “vet” our firm. Over the last 30 plus years – by focusing ONLY on Colorado criminal law – H. Michael has had the necessary time to commit to the task of constantly updating himself on nearly every area of criminal law, to include Colorado criminal law and procedure and trial and courtroom practice. H. Michael works hard to get his clients the best possible results in and out of the courtroom. He has written, and continues to write, extensively on Colorado criminal law and he hopes this article helps you in some small way –

Ignorance Of The Law Is No Excuse – What Does This Really Mean Under Colorado Criminal Law?

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Ignorance Of The Law Is No Excuse - What Does This Really Mean Under Colorado Criminal Law?
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Ignorance Of The Law Is No Excuse - What Does This Really Mean Under Colorado Criminal Law?
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Ignorance Of The Law Is No Excuse - What Does This Really Mean Under Colorado Criminal Law? One often hear this phrase in life - but have you ever asked yourself what it really means? Where did the phrase Ignorance Of The Law Is No Excuse come from and how does it apply - or not apply - to your Colorado criminal case.
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___________________________
H. Michael Steinberg Esq.
Attorney and Counselor at Law
The Colorado Criminal Defense Law Firm of H. Michael Steinberg
A Denver, Colorado Lawyer Focused Exclusively On
Colorado Criminal Law For Over 30 Years.
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