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Accidental Crimes and Ignorance of the Law

What Happens If You Accidentally Commit A Crime In Texas?

Many people have heard the saying “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.” While it is true that someone who breaks a law that they did not know existed can still be penalized, ignorance of the law can create complex legal situations. After all, in Texas, many penalties for criminal activities are based on the willfulness or intention of the suspected offender. Some crimes can be upgraded to a higher penalty category based on the degree of intent displayed by the offender.

If that is the case, can penalties be reduced for a person who committed a crime without the intention to do so? Read on to find out more about this complex issue.

The Issue of Mens Rea

In many legal cases, the term “mens rea” makes an appearance. This Latin phrase translates to “guilty mind” in English. In criminal cases, mens rea refers to the issue of criminal intent. Specifically, this legal concept is used to express the thought that a person can’t be held criminally accountable for their actions if they honestly did not understand that they were doing something wrong.

For example, suppose that Allison is walking along the sidewalk downtown when she sees a construction site. The site is deserted but it is covered with “No Trespassing” signs and it is clearly roped off from the public. Allison walks past these signs and steps through the ropes and she explores the construction site. If the police arrive, they can arrest Allison and charge her with criminal trespass. She can’t claim ignorance of the law because there were signs clearly posted and any reasonable person could infer that they were not supposed to enter the site.

Imagine the same scenario, except that Allison enters a construction site that does not have any “No Trespassing” signs posted and the area is not roped off at all. Allison might claim that she was simply curious about the area and wanted to have a look around. Can Allison be held legally responsible for trespassing if she had no way of knowing that the area was forbidden to the public?

The Importance of Criminal Intent

In modern legal cases, “mens rea” is usually referred to as criminal intent. Some laws require criminal intent to be established in order for a conviction to be reached. One of the most common examples of this issue occurs in cases of involuntary manslaughter.

Suppose that Joe and Rick are hanging out and looking at Joe’s new handgun. Joe hands the gun to Rick to inspect and Rick accidentally squeezes the trigger, shooting Joe in the head and killing him. Can Rick be convicted of murder?

Not likely. In order to be convicted of murder in Texas, the prosecution must prove some degree of criminal intent. Capital murder refers to a killing that is carried out intentionally with planning beforehand. A person who kills another in the heat of the moment may only be charged with murder, which does not require intent beforehand.

A person who kills another through recklessness or criminal negligence may be charged with manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide because they lacked intent to kill.

This shows the importance of criminal intent in legal cases. The presence or degree of intent can drastically affect how charges are filed.

But can someone be convicted if they didn’t know their actions were illegal?

Convictions In Spite of Ignorance

The short answer is, yes, it is possible in the state of Texas to convict someone who broke the law even if they were unaware that their actions were illegal. However, such a conviction is not guaranteed. It is often up to the discretion of the judge or jury to decide if criminal intent was present in a particular case.

For example, if a person is charged with DWI in Texas, they cannot claim their innocence based on ignorance of the law. If a person is arrested for drunk driving, they will not be successful if they argue that they didn’t intend to get drunk or that the drinks that they were served were stronger than they wanted. Their criminal intent can be established because they willingly drank alcohol and then got behind the wheel.

In another example, a hunter may be on a deer lease when he shoots at a buck and misses, striking and killing a livestock animal on a nearby ranch. It is highly unlikely that the hunter will be charged with animal abuse or a similar crime for his accidental action. However, a person who stands on their back porch and randomly fires a rifle may be charged with reckless discharge of a firearm.

In short, yes, you can be arrested, charged and convicted for violating a law even if you didn’t know that law existed or that your actions were illegal. However, such cases are often most affected at the sentencing phase.

Punishments for Crimes of Ignorance

In many cases, a person who did not realize that they were breaking the law can have their case plead by an attorney. The attorney may use evidence to display the defendant’s ignorance of the law and argue that such ignorance proves a lack of intent.

This argument may convince the judge or jury to reach a verdict of not guilty, drop the charges or accept a plea deal for a less severe criminal charge.


Have you been charged with a crime that you weren’t aware of? The knowledge and experience of a skilled attorney can help you navigate the law and protect your rights. Attorney Matthew Sharp can do exactly that. Contact his office today at 713-868-6100.

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