Robert J. Hansen rjh at
Sun Apr 3 18:31:25 CEST 2011

> Isn't it a fairly standard maxim that "ignorance of the law is no
> defence?"

I don't see what this has to do with anything, but assuming for the moment you're serious:

In most Western nations ignorance cannot excuse you from the burden of conforming with the law, but it can be used to excuse you from being punished.  The term is /mens rea/, or (loosely translated) "criminal intent."  If you don't have the active intent to do something you know is wrong, then it's pretty hard to get a conviction for doing it.

When I was in Mexico a couple of months ago, I got put up against the wall, searched, my bag searched, and my camera searched, because a police officer thought I took a photograph of a bank.  (I didn't.)  Now, I don't know much about the Mexican system of justice, but I think that even if I had photographed a bank, no Mexican judge would've put me in jail over it: the judge would've let me go with a stern warning.  I clearly had no intent to break the law, therefore it's impermissible to put me in jail.

If I was in the People's Republic of Berzerkistan and a cop sees me take a photograph of a bank, then it literally *does not matter* that I had no idea it was a crime: I'm still going to do ten to fifteen years in a Berzerkistani prison camp for it.  I can't rely on any sort of leeway from the judge (or, for that matter, getting to see a judge at all!).

This is what I mean when I say the real risk in an authoritarian regime is that you will come to the secret police's attention by doing something you had no idea was a crime.

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