What is a Breach of Law?

M. Lupica

A breach of law is defined as any act that violates an existing statute. The breach may result from the person acting in a way that expressly goes against the letter of the law as written and interpreted, or it may result from any action that goes against the spirit of the law when it was passed by the jurisdiction’s lawmaking body. There are generally two components to a breach of law. The first is the mindset of the actor, referred to as the mens rea. The second is the actual action taken that leads to a breach, called the actus reus.

A person violating the letter of the law is committing a breach of law.
A person violating the letter of the law is committing a breach of law.

The most obvious way that a person may commit a breach of law is by committing an action that expressly violates the letter of the law. Consider a statute that states “no person shall knowingly possess any amount of cocaine.” If a man purchases a gram of cocaine from a dealer, as soon as he receives the substance, he is in violation of the statute because he will be in possession of the drug knowing fully what it is.

Additionally, someone may commit a breach of law through violation of the general spirit of the law, which is the practical intent of the lawmaking body at the time it enacted the statute. In the present example, the spirit of the law making it a crime to knowingly possess cocaine is to discourage the use of harmful drugs in society. If the same man goes to someone whom he is not sure is a dealer, hands that person some money without saying anything, and takes a package that he cannot be sure is cocaine without looking at it, then he is not expressly violating the letter of the law because he would have to know the package contains cocaine to do so. However, by purposefully avoiding the knowledge that the item received is cocaine, he has violated the spirit of the law. Thus it is still a breach of law.

There are typically two requirements to a breach of law: mens rea and actus reus. Continuing the use of the cocaine possession statute, the mens rea would be the knowledge that the item is cocaine and the purposeful intent to possess it. The actus reus is the actual possession of the drug, regardless of knowledge. If a man picks up a bag containing a white powdery substance and genuinely is not aware that the substance is cocaine, he would not likely be found to have committed a breach of law. While he is fulfilling the actus reus component by physically possessing the drug, he would not fulfill the mens rea component because of his genuine ignorance of the fact that the substance is cocaine.

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