Mistake of Fact
People v. Navarro
99 Ca. App. 3d Supp. 1 (1979)
Navarro was charged with grand theft and convicted of petty theft under California Penal Code § 487.1. “every person who shall feloniously steal the personal property of another is guilty of theft.”
Whether the defendant should be acquitted if there is a reasonable doubt that he had goof faith that the property was abandoned or there he had permission to take the property.
One cannot commit an offense by carrying away others property by the mistaken belief that it is his own, no matter how great the mistake was. Belief must be genuine.
Jury was given the improper instructions, ruling reversed.
Defendant had taken four wooden beams believing them to be abandoned. He was charged.
There could have been good faith that he had the right to take the beams, even though the belief was unreasonable, he can be entitled to an acquittal. This is because there was no specific intent met which is required to be met (mens rea) as part of the statute.
If a person acts in good faith, believing something to be theirs, then they cannot be held liable for that mistake.
A mistake of fact is is when someone believes it is true but they are mistaken. There can be complete mistakes and mistakes of degree. Today we are going to see can mistake of fact provide a defense for the actor.
From the MPC we learn that if a mistake ruins the chance of finding mens rea, there is a defense (convicted of carrying drugs, did not know there were drugs). However, ignorance or mistake is a defense unless his mistake results in another offense. If the crimes are of different levels of degree, the person is guilty of the crime they supposed, the lower sentence (convicted of carrying cocaine and crack cocaine. Crack cocaine has a higher offense, so they are convicted of carrying only cocaine). Under the common law approach, the person who is aware of one offense and is actually doing a worse one, they will be guilty of the worse offense.
In this case, this is a mistake of fact because he did an action where he did not believe the beams was owned by someone else.
Issue: To be a defense, does the defendants believe have to be both good faith and reasonable, or just in good faith.
Here, the court answers the question and says that reasonable is not a factor, we only need to consider the good faith of the individual.
Common law rules of mistake of fact:
- General intent, the mistake can be a defense solely if the mistake was reasonable.
- Specific intent, the mistake can be a defense even if it is not reasonable, so long as it was genuinely held by the defendant.
A specific intent crime is when there is a requirement of mens rea of Intent or knowledge.
Here is a specific intent crime which means that the DA needs to prove the defendant had the intent to steal the property.
Mistake (or Ignorance of Law)
People v. Marrero
69 N.Y.2d 382 (1987)
Marrero is the defendant. Won at trial, lost appellate court. Appealed.
Marrero was a federal prison guard who was arrested for carrying a loaded pistol at a social gathering with no license. The trial court accepted his reasoning that he was not aware that he broke the law. The appellate court disagreed and he was charged with a violation. He appealed.
Violated NY Penal Law § 265.02 unlicensed loaded weapon. Argument made the statute provided an exception to any official or guard “of any state correctional facility or any penal correctional institution.” Therefore, he thought he was permitted to carry and said that he was excused from this misunderstanding because of New York’s mistake of law statute.
The majority says that there can be no mistake of law defense because the defendant must show that the statute permitted his conduct, not merely that he believed it did. Additionally, the majority says that to allow a more broad approach to mistake of law defenses would result in overwhelming the courts with such a defense.
The dissent disagrees because it undermines the purpose of the statute saying “only a defendant who is not mistaken about the law when he acts has a mistake of law defense. Thus, the dissent says that the reasoning of the majority is counterintuitive.
Here, there was no argument of ignorance of law, instead, just a mistake as to the interpretation of that law. The court says that the room for mistake is quite narrow. Often times there is no room for making the defense. For example a person could seek out the law, and understand it for the sake of finding loopholes. Of such, there should be no defense.
In other words, the big takeaway is that the defense is narrow, and the courts are unsure of which approach they should take to understanding mistake of law.
Cheek v. United States
498 U.S. 192 (1991).
Cheek lost in the trial and appellate court and appealed because of the jury instruction. Here, the Supreme Court said the jury instruction was bad. Later it turns out that Cheek again lost in trial and appeal.
Did the trail court error in saying that a good-faith belief must be objectively reasonable? Meaning, could a reasonable jury see that a good-faith belief is not a defense?
General rule is that ignorance or mistake of the law is not a defense to criminal prosecution. Here however, a reasonable belief can possibly provide a defense.
No! Trial court was wrong to provide the instruction. Conviction reversed and remanded for further trial.
Cheek had not filed his tax returns for several years but had still requested tax refunds. He had been advised by several people that he was not subject to taxation. As a result he was arrested for willful tax evasion.
The court provides an analysis on the word willfully. Willfully is “voluntary intentional violation of a known legal duty.” Here the court says that it is up to the jury to decide if there is a belief of the voluntary intentional violation of paying taxes. Thus, the case should be remanded.
In Marrero, there was no reasonable belief of mistake of law. Meaning, that could not be a defense. Here, however, it can be used as a defense (of course, the more unreasonable, the less likely a jury will rule in your favor). Why?
The difference between mistake of fact or law, is about the content of the mistake. A mistake of law is not knowing the meaning of the law.
One of the biggest takeaways from this case is that from the common law rule, ignorance of the law is not an excuse (defense).
The issue is whether the jury was wrong to be instructed on the “reasonable” understanding of the law. Here, the court says no. Why? Because you can’t intentionally avoid something you don’t BELIEVE you have to do.
So the DA must show that there is an actual knowledge of the duty to file and intention violation. So, if there is no actual belief of that duty, he cannot be guilty.
Mistake of Fact
When somebody believes one thing about the action being done and is wrong (believes they are transporting medicine and later discovered that they were transporting illegal drugs).
Common Law Approach
General intent Show that you did the act but that you had moral blame, even if there is no mens rea attached to the statute – Needs to be reasonable and have a genuine good faith
Specific intent – Needs to have only genuine good faith. Reasonableness is not a factor. This follows the MPC approach
No such thing as a general or specific intent in MPC.
- Not guilty of a crime if there is a mistake of fact if there is no mens rea.
- (1) is true unless the person is aware of committing one crime and is charged for another. In the case that there is a degree of offense, the person is guilty for the lessor offense.
Mistake of Law
When somebody believes one thing about the content of the law but are mistaken in its meaning
Common Law Approach
Generally, there is no defense for the ignorance of the law. However, there are three exceptions.
- Reliance on an official statement of the law (you hear the rule from a person with authority, someone charges with the law’s interpretation or enforcement) and then later find out that it was wrong.
- Constitutional Notice (due process), where you are charged with a crime of omission (failure to act) based on the status of the individual. If this is the case, the prosecution must prove that there was proper notice.
- For a specific intent (purposefully or knowing) crime where the mistake of law negates the specific intent portion of the crime (knowing or purposeful), the a genuine mistake of law can be a difference.
There can be a mistake of law defense if:
- Purpose negates the mens rea (purposeful, knowing, reckless, negligence) required to establish a material element
- A belief that the conduct was not illegal can be a defense if
- There is not enough notice given to the actor
- Acting on reasonable reliance from an official statement of law which was later determined to be wrong.
The content contained in this article may contain inaccuracies and is not intended to reflect the opinions, views, beliefs, or practices of any academic professor or publication. Instead, this content is a reflection on the author’s understanding of the law and legal practices.