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Detroit Legal Blog

When People Often Commit Felonies Unintentionally

Dec 21, 2015, by Maurice Davis in Constitutional Law, Criminal Defense, Felony, Legal Blog

Traditionally, ignorance of the law is not a defense to breaking the law. But this principle came from a time when the laws were much simpler. Today, with the law books filled with complex rules and regulations, it’s hard to expect the average citizen to know even a portion of applicable laws. With more than 3,100 separate crimes outlined in its statute books, the state of Michigan is considering legislation that would protect citizens who unknowingly or unintentionally violate some of the more obscure laws.

Michigan House Bill 4713 and Senate Bill 20 will require prosecutors to prove that people accused of crimes acted with criminal intent, or mens rea. The bills would not apply to substance abuse, traffic, and identity theft laws. But for any other offense, the prosecutor would need to prove that the defendant actually intended to commit a crime—no matter what the statutes say.

People Often Commit Felonies Unintentionally

Many crimes are defined by regulatory agencies and convoluted statutes that are largely unknown to most people. There are laws that regulate employers, the service industry, construction sites, and the use of state parks and wildlife areas. In some cases, violating these regulations can result in serious penalties.

In one famous example, race car driver Bobby Unsel got lost while snowmobiling near his ranch in New Mexico. He almost died from hypothermia during his two-day wait for rescuers inside of a barn he found. Once he recovered, he was convicted in federal court for unlawfully operating snowmobiles in a wildlife area—despite the fact that he had no idea he had strayed into a protected zone.

Often, these kinds of laws are not enforced because the offense usually happens when no one is paying attention. But when someone does happen to get caught violating one of these regulations, the punishment may seem arbitrary—especially since the accused has often never heard of the law in the first place.

The Mens Rea Bills Must Pass Through the Senate Judicial Committee

While most citizens and civil rights activists welcome House Bill 4713 and Senate Bill 20, there are concerns within the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is currently reviewing the bill. Specifically, the legal professionals working for the legislature are concerned about how the wide reach of the reforms could affect current laws.

For example, the Senate’s legal counsel has warned that the bills’ broad language could potentially cancel important laws such as the one prohibiting the sale of cigarettes to minors. A person doesn’t need to act with criminal intent to get a conviction for this offense—and this may be good policy. Prosecutors may find it impossible to prove that a person was intentionally trying to sell cigarettes to minors.

Until Michigan changes the law about criminal intent, make sure you understand the regulations that apply to whatever activities you perform. Whether you plan on camping in the woods or building a shed in your backyard, there may be laws that apply and you could face unexpected penalties for violating them.

Attorney Maurice Davis is a Michigan criminal defense lawyer practicing in and around Detroit. If you need help with criminal charges, you can call him today a (313) 818-3238 for a free and confidential consultation of your case.