Willful Blindness

Willful Blindness

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Many may be familiar with the term “plausible deniability”, or the phrase “turning a blind eye”, but a lesser known and more nuanced term under the law is known as willful blindness.

Also referred to as willful ignorance, this is described as a situation in which a person will intentionally shield themselves from acknowledging information that might make them liable in a civil or criminal case, even denying these facts to themselves.

This is slightly different from the notion of plausible deniability, which refers to the ability of a person to distance themselves from criminal acts by insinuating others are responsible and denying any involvement, with little or no evidence to prove otherwise. This typical occurs in situations of chain of command or organizational hierarchy to help protect the highest ranking individual.

When it comes to willful blindness, the law maintains that a person can be found guilty of a crime where they reasonably should have been aware of the criminal nature at hand.

A famous instance where this was demonstrated in court was in the matter of  United States vs. Jewell, which was a case involving a man who was approached in a bar near the border of the U.S. and Mexico, and was offered to purchase marijuana. Although the defendant Jewell declined, he was then asked to drive a car across the border for a payment of $100. When he was later caught at the border with packages of marijuana found in the car, he claimed he was aware of the packages but had not inspected the contents, and was therefore not aware that he was committing a crime.

During trial, the court instructed the jury that they could satisfy their burden of proof by showing that the defendant purposely and consciously ignored the potential criminal nature of his actions. This gave rise to a jury instruction known as the “ostrich instruction,” stating that the requirement of knowledge to establish a guilty mind is satisfied by “deliberate ignorance”, or willful blindness.

The appellate court later wrote, deliberate ignorance and positive knowledge are equally culpable… one ‘knows’ facts of which he is less than absolutely certain. To act ‘knowingly’, therefore, is not necessarily to act only with positive knowledge, but also to act with awareness of the high probability of the fact in question… ‘knowledge is established if a person is aware of a high probability of its existence, unless he actually believes that it does not exist.”

While Jewell was found guilty and sentenced for this crime, it’s interesting to note that failing to identify the contents of a package has never been applied to major carriers such as FedEx, UPS, or USPS, and have only held individual couriers responsible under this provision.

Although willful blindness can be difficult to prove, it is also a legitimate and effective tool of the law in finding someone guilty of a crime. As the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard summed up nicely, “there are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.” In the eyes of the law, thinking twice about the latter could save you a lot of litigation and grief in the legal system.

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