“Ignorantia juris non excusat” Latin for “Ignorance of law is no excuse” is a legal principle holding that a person who is unaware of a law may not escape liability for violating that law merely because one was unaware of its content. When talking about law, that’s one golden rule one should never forget. There’s no excuse as “I didn’t know”, you HAVE to know.
Now, playing around the statement would require a minimum of three years in a law school, and since not everyone has the zeal to do that, they end up paying bills summing to several figures to their attorneys and sometimes their opponent. This is the price paid to ensure that willful blindness cannot become the basis of exculpation.
While talking about criminal laws, it is always country specific except for a few “grave breaches” recognized by the international community which are universal in nature. Other than that, it includes the acts or omissions that is prohibited, prosecuted, punished and penalized by the penal legislation of the country.
I am sure it’s nearly impossible even for attorneys and sometimes judges to be aware about every single legislation in the country, but again, that is not a legitimate excuse. However, the fact that criminal laws of any country is generally based upon certain principles, makes it easier for them to navigate through the laws.
Like discussed earlier, not everyone attended law school to understand the “principles” but yet again that’s not a valid excuse to exempt you from the liabilities that follow. Little knowledge could be dangerous and despite so, having extensive knowledge would be too much of a difficult task.
Now since there’s little chance of having extensive knowledge and no excuse whatsoever to receive immunity, we still need to be safe rather than sorry. So, let’s come to a mid-point and explore a little about what makes you a criminal which might help you in maintaining a clean record.
It is of common understanding that people who commit crimes are termed criminals. Crimes are any acts or omissions defined by the criminal legislation of the country. And that would be the first answer to the topic question, violating the laws of the land makes you a criminal.
Knowing all the laws of the land is too much to ask for, however it is advised to at least know about the laws that have direct relationship to who you are and what you do. For example, if you are a pharmacist, it would be advised that you know what kinds of drugs would require specific prescriptions and not sell them without proper prescriptions.
Similarly, there are certain criminal acts that have universal jurisdictions. Genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes are some of the core international crimes having universal jurisdiction. So, the second answer to the topic question would be that committing any of such acts makes you a criminal, and for this you can be prosecuted and convicted in any country who has adopted the principle of universal jurisdiction other than the country you belong to or the country where you committed such crime.
Now when we talk about crimes, it is more often than not committed by just one person. There might be the involvement of many parties other than the one pulling the trigger. Be it the one who provokes the person in pulling the trigger or the one who supplies the gun or the one who helps the person escape, some way or other each one of them is voluntarily involved in the commission of the crime.
There are certain principles that governs the concept of criminology, as indicated previously, which seems to be common in a lot of jurisdictions, one of them being the principle that treats the different parties of a crime.
During the modern times, jurisdictions recognize two types of parties to a crime i.e. principle and accessories. Principles are the ones who commit the crime with their own hands or are present in the scene of crime. Principle who do not commit the crime but are present in the crime scene either physically or constructively with an intent to help in the commission of the crime are referred to as principle in second degree or accomplice.
Similarly, accessories are the ones who help in the commission or in furthering the crime without even being present in the crime scene. Accessories could be either accessory before the fact or accessory after the fact. Like the terms imply, accessory before the fact is a person who helps the principle before the actual crime is committed and accessory after the fact is the person who helps the principle after the commission of the crime.
Let’s understand this through an example. Imagine a group of people who wants to rob gold kept in a bank. For this they require a lot of resources, so they contact a person who could provide them with the resources. The provider knows of their plan and yet provides what they need. Now, after proper planning they enter the bank to execute their plans. A few of them held the hostages while the other melted the gold so that they could bring it out.
After the gold was melted and taken out, they fled the crime scene and were found by a group of villagers who were totally aware about them being robbers yet they still helped them in sidetracking the police so that they wouldn’t get caught. (I am sure a lot of you have caught up on the plot. If not, just a small spoiler, “Money Heist”)
So yeah, in this case, the people who held the hostages could be taken as accomplices or principle in second degree since they were not directly involved in stealing the gold. The ones who melted the gold to take it out are the principles. The person who provided the required resources is accessory before the fact and the villagers are accessories after the fact.
Now that we have established how the roles of different people or their contribution in the crime makes them a party to the crime, we can move forward to how the penal codes treat such participants. In the aforementioned example, would it be reasonable and justifiable for each of the participant to be treated in the same way and provide them with the same amount of punishment or penalties? Of course not.
So, the third answer to the topic question would be that being a principle or an accomplice i.e. principle in second degree makes you a criminal. The criminal liabilities would be as prescribed by the law. But what doesn’t make you a criminal makes you an accessory of the crime and in that case the criminal liability would be according to the gravity of your act or involvement. But you will not be necessarily called a criminal.
You could do 99 good things but people will always judge you for that one bad act. Hence, like they say “Savdhan rahe, satark rahe” (Stay careful, stay alert).