The doctrine of willful blindness is well established in criminal law. Many criminal statutes require proof that a defendant acted knowingly or willfully, and courts applying the doctrine of willful blindness hold that defendants cannot escape the reach of these statutes by deliberately shielding themselves from clear evidence of critical facts that are strongly suggested by the circumstances. The traditional rationale for this doctrine is that defendants who behave in this manner are just as culpable as those who have actual knowledge. Edwards, The Criminal Degrees of Knowledge, 17 Mod. L. Rev. 294, 302 (1954)(hereinafter Edwards) (observing on the basis of English authorities that “up to the present day, no real doubt has been cast on the proposition that [willful blindness] is as culpable as actual knowledge”). It is also said that persons who know enough to blind themselves to direct proof of critical facts in effect have actual knowledge of those facts. See United States v. Jewell, 532 F. 2d 697, 700 (CA9 1976) (en banc).I encourage readers to also read Justice Kennedy's dissent. He really believes that when Congress prescribes a knowledge condition in the statute (criminal or otherwise), knowledge and not some other mental state (however culpable) is required.
This Court’s opinion more than a century ago in Spurr v. United States, 174 U. S. 728 (1899), n6 while not using the term “willful blindness,” endorsed a similar concept. The case involved a criminal statute that prohibited a bank officer from “willfully” certifying a check drawn against insufficient funds. We said that a willful violation would occur “if the [bank] officer purposely keeps himself in ignorance of whether the drawer has money in the bank.” Id., at 735. Following our decision in Spurr, several federal prosecutions in the first half of the 20th century invoked the doctrine of willful blindness. n7 Later, a 1962 proposed draft of the Model Penal Code, which has since become official, attempted to incorporate the doctrine by defining “knowledge of the existence of a particular fact”to include a situation in which “a person is aware of a high probability of [the fact’s] existence, unless he actually believes that it does not exist.” ALI, Model Penal Code §2.02(7) (Proposed Official Draft 1962). Our Court has used the Code’s definition as a guide in analyzing whether certain statutory presumptions of knowledge comported with due process. See Turner v. United States, 396 U. S. 398, 416–417 (1970); Leary v. United States, 395 U. S. 6, 46–47, and n. 93 (1969). And every Court of Appeals—with the possible exception of the District of Columbia Circuit, see n. 9, infra—has fully embraced willful blindness, applying the doctrine to a wide range of criminal statutes.
n6 The doctrine emerged in English law almost four decades earlier and became firmly established by the end of the 19th century. Edwards 298–301. In American law, one of the earliest references to the doctrine appears in an 1882 jury charge in a federal prosecution. In the charge, the trial judge rejected the “great misapprehension” that a person may“close his eyes, when he pleases, upon all sources of information, and then excuse his ignorance by saying that he does not see anything.” See United States v. Houghton, 14 F. 544, 547 (DC NJ).
n7 United States v. Yasser, 114 F. 2d 558, 560 (CA3 1940) (interpreting the crime of knowingly and fraudulently concealing property belonging to the estate of a bankrupt debtor to include someone who “closed his eyes to facts which made the existence of” the receiver or trustee“obvious”); Rachmil v. United States, 43 F. 2d 878, 881 (CA9 1930) (per curiam) (same); United States v. Erie R. Co., 222 F. 444, 448–451 (DCNJ 1915) (approving a “willful ignorance” jury instruction to a charge that a rail carrier knowingly granted a concession to a shipper); Grant Bros. Constr. Co. v. United States, 13 Ariz. 388, 400, 114 P. 955, 959 (1911) (interpreting the crime of knowingly encouraging the importation of contract laborers to include those who “willfully and intentionally ignored facts and circumstances known to them, which would have led to [actual] knowledge”).
Note that the Court frames the concept in terms of avoiding knowledge of a fact. Is avoiding knowledge of the law the same as knowing the law? Note in this regard that the definition of willfulness in tax crimes is the intentional violation of a known legal duty. I will probably get back to this issue later.
Hat tip to White Collar Prof Crime Blog, Supreme Court Speaks About Willful Blindness (6/1/11).