How do you stay on the right side of the law? Having some idea of what the law is might be a good start.
Not knowing the law won’t get you anywhere – as anyone who’s been pulled over for having a hanging air freshener or rear-window sticker knows – because “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” Courts have always been skeptical of a defendant who denies knowing illegal conduct was illegal, and this legal concept was first recorded (in the Latin maxim “ignorantia legis non excusat“) about a thousand years ago.
The principle – less pithily put, perhaps – is embodied in Section 15.20 of New York’s Penal Law, which says that
A person is not relieved of criminal liability for conduct because he engages in such conduct under a mistaken belief that it does not, as a matter of law, constitute an offense . . . .
But if ignorance of the law is no excuse, how do you avoid ignorance: how do you figure out what the law is?
Some things don’t take a lot of thought. For instance, you could study Section 160.00 of the Penal Law, and the sections immediately following, which define robbery as, essentially, a ‘larceny’ committed using force or the threat of force. You might then take a side trip to Section 155.05 to find out what ‘larceny’ is (larceny is a medieval French word for ‘stealing’). And if you’ve done all that you should, to be really thorough, follow up with an examination of the court reporters to make sure you haven’t missed anything a judge has said on the subject. But most people don’t have to. They just know they’re not supposed to hit strangers in the street and take their money!
The rules that govern our lives aren’t always that simple, though, as we’ll see below.
Modern statutes don’t just establish rules to live by. They often establish at the same time a framework from which other branches of government can hang their own rules. The New York State Legislature, for instance, has said a lot about the licensing of drivers – and the ‘de-licensing’ of problem drivers – but Sections 215 and 508 of the Vehicle and Traffic Law authorize the Department of Motor Vehicles to make yet more rules for drivers. As a result of that authorization, New York by executive fiat now has the harshest licensing consequences for alcohol-related offenses in the country. Without the state’s elected lawmakers doing a thing.
An agency’s regulations are entitled to deference from the courts, as courts have pointed out (we’ve linked to a very informative opinion, in a case entitled People v. Gaugh here). And if those regulations are ambiguous, Gaugh notes out that courts will look to “the agency’s ‘own interpretation of the regulation for guidance'”.
But the statutes themselves can be complex, ambiguous, and may even seem to contradict themselves. Just take a look at the US Supreme Court’s recent decision in King v. Burwell, a 47-page document settling (by a score of 6 to 3) a years-long argument over four words in the 1,000-page Affordable Care Act.
Once the courts have spoken, of course, every interpretation of a rule – no matter how reasonable the interpretation was – that disagreed with the court’s interpretation is wrong. Any action taken in reliance on a reasonable interpretation that is now ruled incorrect may prove to have been illegal.
Acknowledging these issues, Penal Law Section 15.20 seems to excuse ‘illegal’ conduct, if a mistaken belief in the conduct’s legality was
founded upon an official statement of the law contained in (a) a statute or other enactment, or (b) an administrative order or grant of permission, or (c) a judicial decision of a state or federal court, or (d) an interpretation of the statute or law relating to the offense, officially made or issued by a public servant, agency or body legally charged or empowered with the responsibility or privilege of administering, enforcing or interpreting such statute or law.
This looks promising, but a quick look at case notes on Westlaw suggests that defendants haven’t found it to be a highly reliable ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card.
For one thing, New York’s Court of Appeals has said, quoting the commentary on the statute in McKinney’s Consolidated Laws, that “[t]he ” ‘official statement of the law’ must in fact authorize the conduct in question; a reasonable belief that the statement authorizes such conduct is insufficient””. In other words, you have to have actual permission. You won’t get forgiveness.
Even if you do have permission, according to a 2011 decision, that permission won’t help you if the permission was granted in violation of an agency’s own rules or based on the agency’s mistaken understanding of your situation.
In one case, a generation old now, it does appear that a defendant successfully played the ‘15.20’ card, and the court’s opinion in People v. Studefin is highly recommended, and entertaining, reading.
Anyway, the bottom line appears to be that while overthinking won’t always save you, it’s better than not thinking at all.