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Does it matter if you didn't know something was illegal?

You've probably heard the phrase, "Ignorance of the law is no excuse," a time or two in your life. Detectives and investigators certainly like to repeat it often enough when they want to take a hard-line approach to a potential defendant.

Well, like most sayings, that's not entirely true. The maxim evolved as a way of making people understand that they couldn't just get out of trouble by claiming that they had no idea they were breaking the law. Some crimes, like statutory rape, fall under strict liability laws that utterly fail to account for what the defendant did or didn't know. Many other laws, however, take the defendant's mens rea, or mental state, into account when deciding guilt over various crimes, including many of those on the federal level.

In essence, the concept of mens rea allows the court to draw distinctions between the person who willfully tried to evade his taxes, and the person who mistakenly took deductions he wasn't entitled to take because his tax advisor assured him they were all legitimate.

On the other hand, lying to a federal agent or destroying evidence is a form of felony obstruction of justice. By their very nature, lying or intentionally destroying evidence requires knowledge that you're acting with intentional deceit. Even if you don't know that your actions are against the law or didn't know what you were destroying, you would still likely end up in legal hot water.

Innocent intentions don't always excuse an illegal act -- but your intentions could factor into exactly what federal charges you face and what type of defense you can offer.

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