Scienter is a legal term you'll sometimes hear after a crime has been committed, and it can play a huge role in whether or not the person who committed the crime will be charged.
When you break it down, it basically means that a crime did happen and the person who committed the crime did it on purpose. That is to say, the action itself was intentional. However, while the person did know what he or she was doing, that person did not know that it was illegal.
An Example: Stolen Goods
One common example involves stolen goods. Legally, if you buy something that was stolen, that's also illegal. This is done to try to eliminate the market for stolen goods and punish those who influence others to steal by making it financially beneficial.
This makes perfect sense in simple cases. Say you know people who can hot wire cars. You contact them, ask for a stolen car, and then buy the one they bring you. If caught, you're both clearly guilty.
But what if you did not know? For example, maybe you're looking for a new television. You hop on social media and find one for sale. It seems like an incredibly good deal, so you quickly message the person, agree to meet up, and then buy the television.
Only after that do the authorities arrive at your door. They got a tip about a stolen TV, and they quickly link yours to a robbery in the next town over. That's why it was such a good deal. It was stolen.
You intentionally and purposefully bought the TV, but you did not know it had been stolen when you agreed to buy it. Scienter can then be considered by a jury, and you may be able to shake the charges if you can show you were truly ignorant of the theft and never meant to break the law. It was an honest accident.
You may have heard that ignorance is not a legal defense, and that's often true. If you're going 100 MPH in a 45 MPH zone, you're not going to get out of it by saying you didn't know the speed limit. However, ignorance can be useful in some cases when you truly had no way to know that action you took was illegal. This can hold true even when that action itself was deliberate and intentional. Be sure you know all of your legal options if you're facing charges.
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