When someone willfully withholds knowledge of events or facts in order to shield himself from legal or financial consequences, this is referred to as willful blindness. An illustration of this would be if a person shipping illegal narcotics attempted to prove his innocence by not opening the box and claiming that he was unaware that he was doing so.
Generally speaking, willful blindness is the deliberate failure to conduct a reasonable investigation when presented with a strong suspicion or awareness of wrongdoing to escape responsibility for a wrongdoing act. When presented with evidence or circumstances that raise suspicion or knowledge that there is potential wrongdoing, it is a conscious effort to “bury one’s head in the sand.”
According to the Supreme Court in Global-Tech Appliances, Inc. v. SEB S.A., the traditional rationale for the theory is that defendants who act in a [willfully ignorant] manner are equally as guilty as those who have actual knowledge. In a landmark willful blindness decision, the Ninth Circuit argued that “deliberate ignorance and positive knowledge are equally guilty,” which is the rule’s “substantive foundation.”
The doctrine is controversial and broadens the definition of criminal liability when used in the criminal justice system. Many people have questioned the “equal liability thesis'” underlying normative justification. Regardless, the concept has had the support of the Supreme Court and has been used to some extent by each of the federal courts of appeal.
The willful blindness concept was upheld by the Supreme Court in the civil patent infringement case Global-Tech Appliances, Inc. v. SEB S.A. in 2011, while also adding some additional requirements for the doctrine’s application beyond those required in most federal circuit courts.
This advice seemed to be a step in the right direction initially, even though it wasn’t enough to safeguard due process rights. The playing field has remained significantly unequal since Global-Tech because the federal courts of appeals have been reluctant to use this stricter criterion in criminal cases.
How Can Deliberate Blindness Be Proven?
When a defendant deliberately avoided learning about illegal actions despite being aware of the high likelihood of illegal conduct, willful blindness is demonstrated. The theory stipulates that, where it is applicable, a person who intentionally ensures that they are not made aware of the specifics of wrongdoings, although suspecting otherwise, is just as guilty as a person who is fully aware of the criminal activity.
The mental culpability (the “mens rea” element) necessary to convict a defendant of a crime may be established through a judgment of intentional blindness. By proving willful blindness, the defense that the defendant lacked the necessary intent to commit the offense is effectively abandoned. Additionally, the argument that the defendant was not aware they were breaking the law is refuted by intentional blindness.
Corporate Responsibility for Willful Ignorance
According to this idea, businesses may be held accountable for willfully avoiding facts that would otherwise suggest illegal behavior. If circumstances show a corporation or its agents intentionally avoided information while having a high probability that they were engaging in criminal activity, the corporation may be held accountable. As a result, a corporation cannot avoid culpability by simply hiding the fact that one of its agents was engaging in criminal activity.
For instance, the Bank of New England, N.A. was found guilty of several violations of the Currency Transaction Reporting Act in United States v. Bank of New England, N.A. Financial institutions are required by this act to disclose customer transactions over $10,000. The consumer withdrew more than $10,000 using many distinct checks rather than a single check, but the bank neglected to look into this reportable transaction. The court determined the bank’s intentional blindness to the act to be the cause of the bank’s deliberate failure to enquire regarding the reportability of these transactions.
A firm can also be held accountable for the combined knowledge of its employees. In accordance with this approach, multiple agents’ knowledge is pooled to establish the collective knowledge necessary to hold the corporation liable. The company cannot escape liability by simply delegating some tasks to different agents due to the collective knowledge of the business’s agents.
Because of this, a company may be held accountable for a crime under the doctrine of collective knowledge even though none of its agents individually possess sufficient knowledge to be held accountable.
How Is Intentional Blindness Handled?
In order to be punished in today’s legal system, a person typically needs to be proven to have some degree of mental culpability for the act. This mental culpability is established through willful ignorance. Therefore, any arguments that the defendant lacked the necessary intent to conduct the offense or even knew that he was performing it are invalidated by willful blindness.
The argument for the concept of willful blindness is that someone who has a strong suspicion that they are engaging in criminal activity and goes out of their way to prevent learning any particular is just as morally guilty as someone who already knows the information.
People cannot escape culpability by choosing not to understand what they are doing or why.
Additionally, there are several types of strict liability crimes:
- Wild animal care: Due to its extreme risk, harboring wild animals is an example of a strict responsibility crime, as was already mentioned. Any harm that a wild animal may inflict on another person is the responsibility of the person harboring the animal;
- Product Liability for Consumers: Under strict responsibility, the maker or seller of a defective product that harms or endangers the general public would be held accountable. Any entity involved in the production process, including any seller, may be held accountable. A defective automobile would be an illustration of this. The manufacturer of the defective part, the wholesaler, the dealer, and the manufacturer of the entire vehicle may all be held severely accountable for any injuries that result from the defective part.
The fact that they are all harmful and demand a high level of responsibility from the defendant unites the aforementioned categories despite the fact that they are all distinct from one another. When a person owns a wild animal, it is assumed that they are aware of the animal’s inherent danger and that they are taking on a greater level of responsibility. Ultrahazardous tasks are clearly harmful, and they are often carried out by experts who have been trained to do so as safely as possible.
Manufacturers of goods have made it their goal to gain customers’ trust. Therefore, a producer would be held accountable if they violated that trust by producing a product that caused harm to the customer.
Do Strict Liability Crimes Have Defenses?
There are often very few defenses to strict responsibility offenses, though they may vary depending on the particulars of each case. Concerning strict responsibility allegations, there are four possible defenses:
- Contributory negligence: This presupposes that the wounded party in some way assisted in causing their injury. They have to have done this intentionally and recklessly put themselves at danger;
- Risk Assumption: The consent doctrine may be used to support this defense. This might happen, for instance, if the plaintiff took part in a really dangerous activity. In this situation, the wounded plaintiff might not be able to obtain compensation in a strict responsibility claim for injuries received as a result of the activity’s anticipated higher risks;
- Abuse or Misuse: This legal defense is used in cases involving defective items. Abuse or misuse implies that the product was not utilized in a manner that was safe for it to be used, and that the producer was not aware of this use; and/or
- Comparative Fault: The plaintiff’s own blame is the foundation of the comparative fault defense. When using the comparative fault defense, the wounded plaintiff’s award is diminished by the proportion of their own fault that is thought to have contributed to their injury.
Do I Need an Attorney?
If you have been accused of a crime, you should speak with an accomplished criminal defense lawyer right away. All facets of criminal law, including those governing intent, can be exceedingly complicated and vary from state to state. Your rights and defenses can be explained to you by a local attorney, who can also represent you in court.