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Dysart Willis

Ignorance of the law is no excuse, but what about confusion?

Latin is a dead language, except in the legal profession and some churches. Just because it's dead doesn't mean that some key phrases first cast in Latin have gone to the grave. "Ignorantia juris non excusat" is an example.

Most people in North Carolina probably have no idea what that means. Many, however, know the concept. Roughly translated, it means, ignorance of the law is no excuse. The argument in favor of the principle is that society doesn't want someone charged with a crime to get off simply by being able to say they didn't know what they did was against the law.

Still, there can be confusion in the law, and where misunderstanding exists, so do questions about its application. Considering penalties linked to convictions and the stigma of having a record, it seems fair to examine things to see if change is called for.

One recent case in North Carolina serves as a great example of this. It involved a high school boy and girl who exchanged nude photos of each other. They were dating steadily when they were arrested and charged with making and possessing child pornography. Because they were 16 at the time, they found themselves in a confusing legal state.

Under North Carolina law, 16-year-olds are considered minors. However, they're prosecuted as adults if charged with a felony. So in this case, the teenagers were effectively charged as adults for taking pictures of their minor selves. Sharing the pictures brought charges of distributing child pornography.

Last year, the two saw their felony charges reduced to misdemeanors. Under terms of deferred prosecution, they went through probation and some punishment, but were not convicted of any crime.

With probation over, all charges are dismissed, but there are lingering effects. Athletic scholarship prospects have been lost and legal fees incurred. And the process of getting records expunged still lies ahead.

Ignorance of the law may be no excuse, but many might argue that where the law conflicts with itself there is room for more leniencies in favor of the accused.