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.