Black Letter Law: Definitions & Examples

Instructor: Joe Ricker
Black letter law is the law of the land, so to speak; it includes well established principles and standards that eliminate the potential for reinterpretation or ambiguity in the laws already accepted within the American legal system.

Black Letter Law

Essentially, there's no gray area with black letter law, which includes well-accepted standards, rules, and laws that eliminate confusion or ambiguity in American law. Sometimes known as Hornbook or trite law, black letter laws have already been interpreted, accepted, and upheld time and again in the legal system and are no longer open for interpretation like some other laws. For example, laws against drunk driving are fairly universal throughout different jurisdictions in the United States, making them black letter laws.

The significance of black letter law is that it provides the legal system with a clear standard that must be upheld. Citizens, too, are accountable for knowing these principles and laws, as ignorance of the law is not a valid defense against prosecution.

Defining Criminal Activity

Having a clear, indisputable definition for a particular crime or the degree of a crime contributes to the standard of black letter law. Laws regarding things like homicide, theft, and arson are listed in the Model Penal Code and fall under a basic, generally accepted definition, making them examples of black letter law. You cannot murder people, steal things, or set someone's house on fire and be prosecuted without falling under the scrutiny of these indisputable laws. Here is an excerpt from the Model Penal Code that defines criminal homicide:

'Sec. 19.01. TYPES OF CRIMINAL HOMICIDE. (a) A person commits criminal homicide if he intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence causes the death of an individual.

(b) Criminal homicide is murder, capital murder, manslaughter, or criminally negligent homicide.'

While there are varying degrees of homicide, which include murder, capital murder, manslaughter, and criminally negligent homicide, as listed above, the definition of criminal homicide is not up for interpretation. Plea bargains can sometimes shift the degree of murder that a defendant is charged with, but here again, it is still criminal homicide.

Finding a Definition

Some specific court cases have caused laws to become black letter laws when various re-interpretations of the law in regard to a case results in one universal understanding of the law. Typically, this happens through an appeals process, which can go all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Some of the most famous Supreme Court cases in history have led to the creation of black letter laws.

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