Law Basics: Answers to some basic questions you are too afraid to ask (but you really want to know)

If I happen to break a law that I wasn’t aware of, can’t I justQuestions claim I didn’t know about it and get off the hook?

Generally, no. Ignorance is usually not a valid defense to violating the law, unless the particular law itself requires that a person knew about the law and violated it anyway, either intentionally or not.

But for the most part, as crazy as it seems, you are actually expected to know pretty much ALL of the laws that apply to you, even the most obscure ones that few people know about.

What laws apply to me?

For most of the actions you take, your physical location at the time you take the action determines which laws have “jurisdiction” over you. For example, if you are driving through the City of Los Angeles, you are subject to the traffic laws of (1) the City of L.A., (2) the state of California, and (3) the United States (federal laws). If you then drive through the city of Beverly Hills, you would be subject to that city’s traffic laws instead of L.A.’s traffic laws.

However, actions that affect other cities or states (for example, shipping a product to a customer in another state) may also subject you to the laws of these other cities or states.

How do I find out whether I am within the official boundaries of a particular city?

Many locations are almost always referred to by their district name, leading some people to Los Angeles Vintage Mapthink these districts are in fact separate cities when they are not. For example, “Sherman Oaks” is a district within the city of Los Angeles. There is no City of Sherman Oaks. The laws of the city of L.A. apply to Sherman Oaks.

In addition, some areas are not within a city at all, but are “unincorporated areas” subject to the laws of the County rather than any city. Marina del Rey is an example of an unincorporated area within L.A. County. See the list of unincorporated areas in L.A. County.

To find out whether your area is its own city, a district within a city, or an unincorporated area within L.A. County, see the really cool L.A. Times website feature Mapping L.A. which will give you this information about every area within the county.

How do I find out what all this legalese means?

Law Soup aims to set out the law in plain language, but sometimes we have to use a term that people are not familiar with. To find a definition of these terms, see our glossary of terms.

Where do laws come from?

Photo by Tambako The Jaguar, CC 2.0

Photo of Storks by Tambako The Jaguar, CC 2.0

Storks. Just kidding. Laws come from a variety of sources, including:

  • Federal/national
    • U.S. Constitution
    • Federal statutes passed by Congress (signed by president)
    • Federal court cases decided by federal judges and justices
    • Regulations made by federal agencies
    • Executive orders by the president
  • State
    • State Constitution
    • State statutes passed by the state legislature (signed by governor)
    • State ballot initiatives approved by the voters (usually by a simple majority)
    • State court cases decided by state judges and justices
    • Regulations made by state agencies
    • Executive orders by the governor
  • Local
    • City Charter
    • County laws passed by County Board of Supervisors
    • City laws and ordinances passed by City Council
    • City-wide ballot initiatives approved by the voters (usually by a simple majority)
    • Regulations passed by city agencies

When we describe a particular law on Law Soup, we usually give a citation to its source so you can find out where exactly the law came from. Then you will also know where to go if you want the law changed in some way.

Where can I get even more information?

Our mission is to give you bite-sized, easily digestible information. Want to read more in-depth legal information or get links to references? Take a look at these great legal resources.