Raley v. Ohio, 360 U.S. 423 (1959)

In the context of criminal cases, courts strictly adhere to the maxim ‘‘ignorance of the law is no excuse.’’ Under this rule, accused persons cannot claim lack of criminal responsibility because they were not aware that their actions violated the law. However, in Raley v. Ohio, the Supreme Court recognized a narrow exception to this rule, sometimes referred to as ‘‘entrapment by estoppel.’’

The defendants in Raley v. Ohio were all called as witnesses before the Ohio Un-American Activities Commission to answer questions regarding alleged subversive government activities. Despite the fact that an Ohio statute (Contempt Statute) prohibited witnesses appearing before state legislative committees from refusing to answer questions, the defendants were all informed by the commission that they were entitled to assert their state constitutional privilege against self-incrimination, if necessary. The defendants all refused to answer questions in reliance on this privilege and, although the commission accepted these assertions without question, the defendants were charged with and convicted of violating the Contempt Statute. The Ohio Supreme Court affirmed these convictions, holding that the defendants were presumed to have knowledge of the Contempt Statute and its requirements. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, reversed the convictions, holding that the prosecution of these defendants for engaging in conduct that state officials had advised was legal violated due process.

The Supreme Court’s holding in Raley was significant because it recognized that it is fundamentally unfair for the government to approve certain conduct, and then prosecute an individual for engaging in that conduct.

JUDITH M. BARGER

References and Further Reading

  • Cohen, Mark S., Entrapment by Estoppel, Colorado Lawyer 31 (2002): 45–48.
  • Cox v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 559 (1965).
  • Miller v. Commonwealth, 492 S.E.2d 482 (Va. 1997).
  • Parry, John T., Culpability, Mistake, and Official Interpretations of Law, American Journal of Criminal Law 25 (1997): 1–78.
  • Pasano, Michael S., Walther J. Tache, and Thierry Oliver Desmet, Using the Defense of Entrapment by Estoppel, Champion 26 May (2002): 20–24.

See also Due Process; Entrapment by Estoppel

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