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Lambert v. California

    Brief Fact Summary. Defendant Lambert was convicted for violating a California ordinance that requires any convicted person who remains in California for the specified period to register with the State. Defendant offered proof that she had no actual knowledge of the ordinance, however the proof was refused.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. In order for a conviction to stand for failure to register under this ordinance, a defendant must have actual knowledge of the duty to register or proof of the probability of such knowledge.

    Facts. Defendant was charged with violating California’s registration law which required any person convicted of a felony in California or convicted in another State where, had the offense been committed in California, it would have been a felony. The registration law had no element of willfulness. Defendant offered proof that she had no actual knowledge of the ordinance, however the proof was refused. Defendant was found guilty at the jury trial and appeals.

    Issue. Are an individual’s Due Process rights violated where a registration act is applied to a person who has no actual knowledge of his duty to register and where no showing is made of the probability of such knowledge?

    Held. Yes. Judgment reversed.
    Imposition of this registration law on an individual who has no actual knowledge of a duty to register and where no showing is made of the probability of such knowledge is a violation of due process.

    While ignorance of the law is generally not a viable defense, Due Process places some limits on the exercise of that doctrine. Notice is a requirement imposed by Due Process in situations where a penalty may ensue from an individual’s failure to act.

    In the case of registration laws, failure to register is “conduct that is wholly passive” and therefore should be evaluated differently than commission of acts or omissions under circumstances that should alert the non-actor or a duty to act. This registration law provides no notice and no opportunity, once the defendant becomes aware of the act, to comply with law.

    In order for a conviction to stand for failure to register under this ordinance, the defendant must have actual knowledge of the duty to register or proof of the probability of such knowledge.

    Dissent. The majority draws a line between the requirement of doing and not doing. The dissenting opinion sees no reason to distinguish violation of a registration law where the individual was unaware of the registration requirement from those cases where an individual acted without awareness that the action was illegal.

    Discussion. The majority opinion in this case carves out an exception to the general rule that ignorance of law is not a viable defense.


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