United States v. Mancuso – Case Brief
United States v. Mancuso, 420 F.2d 556 (2d Cir. 1970).
Facts: In 1950 Mancuso was convicted of violating federal narcotics laws and was sentenced to three years probation. Approximately seventeen years later he flew to England from Kennedy Airport in New York and returned six days later.
Federal statute 18 U.S.C. § 1407 requires any citizen convicted of narcotics or marijuana offenses, as well as those who are addicted to or use narcotic drugs, to register with customs officials when leaving and entering the country. Mancuso did not register and was charged on two counts.
At trial the government produced evidence showing that there were signs stating the registration requirement at Kennedy Airport. There were no such signs at the airport from which Mancuso departed on his return flight. The trial court found as a factual matter that Mancuso did not have knowledge of the registration requirement. Mancuso was convicted on both counts and appealed.
Issue: Is ignorance of the law an excuse when the law is a little known statutory command that can only be discovered by reading the statute?
Holding and Rule (Kaufman): Yes. Ignorance of the law is an excuse when the law is a little known statutory command that can only be discovered by reading the statute.
In Lambert v. California the Supreme Court of California declared unconstitutional a Los Angeles statute that required all convicted felons to register with the police department within five days of arrival in the city. The Supreme Court held that the lack of either notice or a showing of probability of knowledge of the statute violated due process. The Supreme Court in that case indicated that there was no commission of acts, or failure to act under circumstances that would make the doer aware of the consequences of his deed. The crime dealt with conduct that was entirely passive. Since the district court specifically found that there was no knowledge of the statute, we hold that Mancuso is not guilty.
Public Policy: The primary purpose of the law is to conform conduct to the norms expressed in that law. When there is no knowledge of the law’s provisions and no reasonable probability that knowledge might be obtained, no useful end is served by prosecuting the violators.
Common law cases generally applied the maxim ignorantia legis neminem excusat (’ignorance of the law is no excuse’) when mistake or ignorance of the existence of a crime was urged. The sound reasoning behind such a conclusion was that the criminal law expressed general communal moral standards, and ignorance of their existence reflected in any case either recklessness or dangerousness to the community. The maxim and its rationale are severely undercut when applied to ignorance of the facts constituting an offense, or ignorance of a malum prohibitum and little known statutory command that can be found only by reading the statute.
Disposition: Indictment dismissed.
Concurrence (Moore): Probability of knowledge is an exclusively factual question dependent upon the facts of each case. We do not have to declare here when ignorance of the law is an excuse. Nor do we have to list the ways in which notice might be given to warrant a factual conclusion of probability of knowledge.
Notes: Ignorance of the law is no excuse for common law crimes or their derivatives. For statutory requirements that do not offend general communal moral standards (i.e. malum prohibitum offenses), due process requires notice, particularly when passivity or failure to act constitutes the criminal act (i.e. a failure to register).
An exception exists where the crime involves activity that is inherently dangerous. For example in United States v. Freed, the United States Supreme Court upheld a criminal statute that prohibited anyone from possessing hand grenades that were not registered to them. The Court held that notice of the requirement to register was not necessary to sustain a conviction and ignorance of it was not a defense.