What is Willful Blindness?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 02 February 2020
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In the law, willful blindness is a deliberate attempt to remain ignorant about facts which might make someone liable. In many regions of the world, it is not accepted as a defense and can in fact be prosecuted. This is also sometimes known as contrived ignorance or willful ignorance.

A common example of willful blindness can be seen in cases in which people who act as carriers for drug smugglers argue that they did not know what was in the packages they were carrying. In these cases, the carrier deliberately makes sure that she or he is never explicitly told that a package contains drugs. In this situation, the carrier is exercising willful blindness by trying to remain ignorant, at least officially, of the fact that an illegal act is being committed.

One reason willful blindness is not generally considered a good defense to illegal activity is that, in most cases, it would have been reasonable to suspect that illegal activity was occurring. In cases where there was a high probability that actions might be suspect and people fail to ask for information, they can still be held liable under the argument that they should have been aware, or that they had reasonable belief that something was illegal, even if they did not necessarily know what.


Distinguishing willful blindness can be important. To use the example of drug smugglers again, if someone leaves a bag unattended in a hotel room and a hotel staffer sneaks drugs into the bag with the intent of having someone at traveler's destination take the bag to get the drugs, the person is genuinely acting as an unwitting carrier. She or he did not know that there was anything illegal in the bag and carried it innocently. On the other hand, if that same hotel employee asked a guest to carry a package to a friend and the guest failed to ask about the contents of the package, this may be viewed as willful blindness under the argument that the guest should have suspected that there was something amiss with the contents of the package.

Willful blindness can also come up in money laundering cases, in which someone tries to claim that he or she was unaware that funds changing hands were illegally obtained. As a general rule, when someone does something or accepts something in circumstances which appear to be suspicious and fails to ask for information and clarification, if the activity is illegal or associated with illegal activities, that person can potentially be liable even if he or she did try to avoid knowing the facts of the matter.


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Post 2

@logicfest -- And that is precisely why courts should err on the side of caution in these cases. It is better to let one person "cheat" the system and get away with it than to jail 10 people who have done nothing wrong.

Post 1

This is a very difficult concept that has boggled courts and lawmakers for years. Why? Proving that someone should have "reasonably suspected" criminal activity is tough because the very notion discounts the fact that the accused might be a genuinely innocent person.

Take, for example, the hotel employee carrying a package. One would think that is part of his or her regular job, so why should it be suspicious if that person doesn't ask about the contents? Further, what if you are dealing with someone who hasn't the "street smarts" to understand why carrying that particular package is different from hauling another of a dozen ones?

The point here is that define what a reasonable person should assume or not assume can be highly subjective. When dealing with subjective concepts, they are hard to define.

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