Ignorance of the law is no defense – but should it be?
About 40,000 new state laws went into effect the first of this year throughout the United States, according to a report from the National Conference of State Legislatures. With a total of about 16 million laws in the United States, I can’t help but wonder how ignorance of the law is not a valid defense in today’s world.
For a nation that prides itself on being the most free country in the known universe, how is it that we have more laws than any other nation on Earth? No wonder there is so much hollering for less regulation, since we can’t even keep up with the laws we already have.
Sounds like our political representatives could take some tips from the fashion world. You know, like the tip about getting rid of an old, faded worn-out piece of clothing when you get a fresh new piece. That way you don’t end up with a closet jam-packed full of ratty old clothes that don’t fit anymore.
And of course, the more clothes in the closet (laws on the books), the more accessories must be added to the mix (regulators to enforce the laws), all of which not only crowds out the fresh new clothes, but gradually acquires a musty smell that the wearer gets used to and doesn’t notice (even though everyone else does). Not to mention the colonies of dust and spider mites that proliferate in the stitches of long-forgotten pockets.
How can someone be expected to be a good, law-abiding citizen when it is virtually impossible to know, much less understand, all the laws?
Last week, I had the opportunity to chat about this problem with world-renowned futurist Thomas Frey, who has done extensive research on this and other timely topics through his work with the DaVinci Institute.
“There are actually between 14 and 18 million laws in the U.S., so 16 million is the average,” he explained, “and we have a full 25 percent of the world’s prison population. People are breaking laws all the time and don’t even realize it — and it’s getting worse.”
Then he stated the same thing I had been wondering: “There’s that time-honored tenet that ignorance of the law is no defense, but how can it not be? Most people can’t even find them, much less know and understand them.”
He gave an example of taking a cross-country vacation, driving from one city and state to the next.
“You have no idea what the laws are as you drive through these municipalities, nor would you have any way of reasonably finding out.”
Suspecting that Frey, as part of a leading think tank, had some viable solutions to this scary problem, I took a chance and asked.
“There is no central repository for the laws in this country,” he answered, adding that if we are expected to follow the laws, we should have easy access to them. Turns out, he and the institute have developed a four-step process as a starting point. I grabbed a pencil and paper.
“All government entities would need to sign on, of course, starting with the federal government,” he declared, then outlined the four steps.
Step 1: Establish a central repository for all the laws, broken down by district, accessible by all citizens via the Internet. “I think that’s reasonable,” he said. “If ignorance of the law is no defense, then make the laws accessible — and understandable, which leads us to the next step.”
Step 2: There would have to be “understandability” in the way the laws are written. “If a law isn’t understandable to an eighth-grader, then it’s not enforceable,” he suggested. “I think that’s a reasonable expectation.”
Step 3: The laws must be enforceable. “If, after 20 years, a law cannot be enforced, it should go away.” I thought of those musty old clothes and accessories in the closet analogy. Get rid of them and vacuum up those dust mites too.
Step 4: Remove conflicts of interest from the laws. “No municipality should directly benefit financially from enforcement of the laws they make,” Frey said, adding that this conflict in particular is at the root of many problems “in the criminal justice game.”
“We have all the technology and ability to make this happen today,” he said, “but it will take leadership by our political representatives to make it happen.”
Representatives? I couldn’t stifle a giggle. Seems too many of our politicians and their staff these days think we elected them to be our parents, bosses, and preachers instead of our “representatives.”
I have to agree with Frey. It is only “reasonable” to demand from our “representatives” that our laws be accessible, understandable and enforceable, and for the protection of people rather than the exploitation of them.
And if our lawmakers don’t like the fashion tips, they should at least watch an episode or two of “Hoarders.” That way they could learn about the basics of how to throw out the waste, dust off the assets, make room for the new and organize it all in clearly labeled transparent bins.
As Frey says, “I think that’s a reasonable request.”
What’s that? Oh dear, sounds like the trash bin is calling for those old red and black stiletto heels that, cute as they may be, hurt my feet and have absolutely no chance of ever being worn again.