A New Mexico fire inspector investigating reports of illegal fireworks being launched on the Fourth of July discovered some unexpected culprits behind the blasts: a group of Buddhist monks.
The monks at the Hoi Phuoc Buddhist Temple had a pretty solid excuse for their explosive transgressions, Albuquerque's KRQE-TV reports: Since they don't watch TV, read the paper, or listen to the radio, they had no idea that fireworks weren't allowed in Albuquerque.
Ignorance may be bliss to some, but is not knowing about a law a valid excuse for breaking it?
The Temple of Boom
Albuquerque authorities take their ban on fireworks pretty seriously. They issued 17 citations over this year's Fourth of July holiday and answered more than 1,200 calls reporting illegal fireworks, according to KRQE.
Investigating one such call, a local fire inspector spotted illegal fireworks being detonated at the Buddhist temple, with an assembled group of Buddhist monks watching the show.
Despite the monks' protests that they were unaware of the local fireworks ordinance as a result of their cloistered lifestyle, they were cited for violating the city's fireworks ban. Under the Albuquerque Code of Ordinances, such a violation is punishable by a $500 fine and up to 90 days in jail.
Mistake of Law Is No Defense
In general, being mistaken about a law is no defense for breaking it. Anyone who is subject to the law who does not otherwise lack capacity -- such as by being a minor child or by virtue of a mental disease or defect -- is presumed to know and understand the law.
The only time a mistake of law may be used as a partial defense are crimes that require a specific intent. In certain instances, believing an act was legal, when in fact it was not, may tend to negate the required "intent" of a crime.
For example, robbery requires the intent to steal the property of another. If a man who robs another person who owes him money, mistakenly believing that the law allows individuals to take money they are owed, it could be argued that the perpetrator did not have the specific intent to take the property of another. Whether or not this argument would fly in court, however, is another question entirely.
In this case, however, the monks are most likely stuck learning about the local fireworks ordinance the hard way. According to KRQE, the fire inspector told the monks, "It's still your responsibility to know the laws of the land."
- Buddhist Monks Face Jail Time For July 4 Fireworks Display (NPR)
- Can You Get Arrested for Possessing, Setting Off Fireworks? (FindLaw's Blotter)
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- Louisiana Man Didn't Know It Was Illegal to Bash Mailboxes (FindLaw's Legal Grounds)