When ignorance of the law is an excuse

It turns out that ignorance of the law is an excuse.

The Minnesota Supreme Court said so today in striking the conviction of a man who was supposed to register as a predatory offender when he entered Renville County in 2014. Juanel Anthony Mikulak’s defense? He thought he had a week and didn’t know otherwise.

That wasn’t good enough for the court that accepted his guilty plea of violating the state’s predatory offender law nor the Court of Appeals (see opinion), which upheld the conviction saying ignorance of the law is no excuse.

But the Supreme Court today disagreed (see opinion), saying that although it’s a crime to “knowingly violate” any part of the predatory offender-registration statute, Mikulak didn’t know he had.

Writing for the majority, Justice G. Barry Anderson turned aside the state of Minnesota’s claim that Mikulak knew about the requirement when he signed a form in 2008 advising him of the law requiring him to register within 24 hours of arriving in town.

The plain text of the statute suggests that the defendant must know that he is violating the statute when the violation occurs. Specifically, “knowingly” is used as an adverb to modify “violates.” Therefore, “knowingly” describes how the defendant must “violate” the statute to be convicted under [the law] . Accordingly, the knowledge and the violation must occur at the same time.

In her dissent, however, Justice Anne McKeig suggested the ruling essentially guts the law. “The majority’s decision essentially means that a predatory
offender has no responsibility to reference registration requirements before moving, and can avoid them altogether through forgetfulness,” she wrote.

The majority’s contention that the phrase “knowingly violates” requires the offender to intend to violate the law, and that an offender may therefore claim ignorance of the law as an excuse, is inconsistent with the Legislature’s public-safety purpose and renders the notice requirements of the statute meaningless. Under the majority’s interpretation, the statute’s requirements that the district court inform the offender of his personal duty and have him sign an acknowledgement of it ultimately fails to protect public safety as intended, because the offender may simply let his duty slip from his mind forever and avoid any penalty.

“Knowledge of the law is an element of an offense when the statute’s text requires it,” Anderson countered.