Willful Ignorance, Culpability and the Criminal Law

St. John's Law Review, Vol. 88, pp. 1023-1102, 2014

79 Pages Posted: 12 Feb 2014 Last revised: 16 Mar 2016

See all articles by Alex F. Sarch

Alex F. Sarch

University of Surrey School of Law

Date Written: June 20, 2014

Abstract

According to the willful ignorance doctrine, when conviction of a crime requires knowledge of some fact, the defendant’s willful ignorance may be allowed to satisfy the relevant knowledge requirement. However, there is a circuit split concerning what, precisely, being willfully ignorant involves. According to the restricted motive approach endorsed by the Eighth, Tenth and Eleventh Circuits, the defendant has to have deliberately remained in ignorance in order to preserve a defense against liability in the event of prosecution. However, according to the unrestricted approach championed by the Ninth Circuit and endorsed by a number of other circuits, no particular motive for remaining in ignorance is required.

This Article argues that both of these approaches are in tension with the courts’ “traditional rationale” for the willful ignorance doctrine. The traditional rationale is premised on the idea that acting in willful ignorance is just as culpable as acting knowingly — the so-called “equal culpability thesis.” However, this Article argues that the equal culpability thesis does not hold across the board, only in a limited set of circumstances. Appreciating this fact shows that the unrestricted approach is overinclusive in that it sometimes permits willful ignorance to substitute for knowledge even when the equal culpability thesis does not hold. Similarly, the restricted motive approach proves to be underinclusive in that it sometimes fails to allow willful ignorance to substitute for knowledge even when the equal culpability thesis does hold. These defects threaten the normative underpinnings of both approaches.

To arrive at a more normatively justified approach to the willful ignorance doctrine, a systematic account is needed of the conditions in which the equal culpability thesis holds. The task is even more important because the thesis is rarely defended explicitly. This Article attempts to fill this gap by defending a version of the thesis that more accurately captures the conditions under which acting in willful ignorance is as culpable as acting knowingly. This appropriately restricted version of the thesis is then used as the basis for offering a more justified approach to the willful ignorance doctrine — one that avoids the overinclusiveness of the unrestricted approach and the underinclusiveness of the restricted motive approach, while also remaining practically implementable by courts.

Keywords: Willful Ignorance, Willful Blindness, Culpability, Criminal Law, Mens Rea, Knowledge, Recklessness, Philosophy of Criminal Law

Suggested Citation

Sarch, Alex F., Willful Ignorance, Culpability and the Criminal Law (June 20, 2014). St. John's Law Review, Vol. 88, pp. 1023-1102, 2014, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2394240 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2394240

Alex F. Sarch (Contact Author)

University of Surrey School of Law ( email )

United Kingdom

HOME PAGE: http://www.surrey.ac.uk/law/people/alexander_sarch/

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