Erin O'Connor

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Supreme Court Economics Review

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This article analyzes Supreme Court and other federal court cases, to explain the seemingly disparate incorporation of mistake of law excuses into federal criminal statutes. Most of the cases can be explained from an information cost perspective. If an easily separable subset of the regulated population cannot be induced to learn their legal obligations given credibly low prior probabilities and high information costs, they are excused from criminal liability. Moreover, when criminal statutes are vulnerable to constituent protest, courts require that enforcers increase awareness of the law through information subsidies rather than convicting the ignorant. At least with mistake of law, the federal courts most often interpret federal statutes to enhance both the value and durability of legislative bargains.

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