What is willful blindness?

According to documents filed with a Minnesota appellate court, law enforcement stopped a man because he was not wearing his seatbelt. The man produced his Minnesota driver’s license and told the officer that he was from Ethiopia. The officer spotted a bag with what he believed was marijuana in the man’s vehicle and placed him under arrest. The bag contained khat, which is a plant native to Ethiopia and legally used there, but it is considered a controlled I substance in Minnesota. The man claimed he did not know khat was illegal in Minnesota. During his trial, the prosecution asked that the jury receive instruction on willful blindness.

Willful blindness is an argument often used by prosecutors to demonstrate that someone knew he or she was breaking the law. Essentially, the prosecution in the case above claimed that the defendant was lying; the argument was that the man knew khat was illegal and was feigning ignorance of the law to avoid conviction for his actions. The appellant court states that it is the state’s responsibility to “prove that defendant consciously possessed, either physically or constructively, the substance and that the defendant had actual knowledge of the nature of the substance.”

How it works

In this instance, a willful blindness jury instruction actually worked in the defendant’s favor because the jury agreed that the defendant did not know that khat was illegal and the prosecution failed to show that he deliberately avoided gaining such knowledge. However, that is often not the case. In most situations in which someone charged with a crime claims ignorance, prosecution will use willful blindness to demonstrate that looking the other way does not equate innocence.

There are several terms prosecution may use to reference the behavior, including the following:

  • Willfull ignorance
  • Deliberate ignorance
  • Conscious avoidance
  • Ostrich instruction, as defendants allegedly bury their heads in the sand

It is important to be aware, however, that there are times when the jury instruction may be inappropriate, as illustrated by the case of the Ethiopian man. The district court jury initially convicted him of a fifth-degree controlled substance crime, but the appellate court reversed the decision, stating that jury instruction actually could have influenced the decision of the criminal proceedings as there was insufficient evidence to show the man’s ignorance was deliberate. Furthermore, an appellate judge wrote that the instruction given in this case was inconsistent with Minnesota law because it fostered inference, which should be avoided.

The matter of willful blindness is highly complex and typically applies only in certain situations. Anyone with questions should consult with a criminal defense attorney.

He has won jury trial cases in misdemeanor and felony cases and in DWI’s and non-DWI’s. He is a member of the Minnesota Society for Criminal Justice, which only allows the top 50 criminal defense attorneys in the state as members. He is a frequent speaker at CLE’s and is often asked for advice by other defense attorneys across Minnesota.

What to Do If You Have Been Charged with a Criminal Offense

Involve a criminal appeal attorney soon after you learn the prosecution is appealing your sentence. Your attorney will walk you through the involving and confusing sentencing guidelines. An attorney's involvement will also help you develop a defense strategy for the appeal.