Criminal Law Outline - Mistake of Fact, Mistake of Law

  1. Mistake of Fact
    1. Common Law
      1. For specific intent crimes, mistake of fact is a defense if it negates MR.
        1. Ex. People v. Navarro
          1. Statute: "trespassory taking and carrying away of the personal property with intent to steal."
          2. D took some wood he thought was abandoned. It wasn't.
          3. Court held that when a specific-intent crime, only matters what D knew, not what he should have known. Mistake of fact here means D did not have intent to steal, negates the MR requirement.
        1. Does not matter if that D's mistakes in these cases may have been entirely unreasonable under the circumstances as long as they actually believe it.
      1. For general intent crimes, mistake of fact is a defense only if the mistake is reasonable.
        1. Exceptions…
          1. Moral wrong doctrine
            1. Permits conviction of D whose mistake of fact was reasonable if the thing he was intending to do was an immoral act which justified conviction.
            2. Ex. Illegal to unlawfully take <16 year old from parents without permission. D takes V, 14, from parents, but she reasonably looks 18. If court holds that it is immoral, even if it's not illegal to take 18 year old V from parents without permission, D is still culpable.
          1. Legal wrong doctrine
            1. Permits conviction of D whose mistake of fact was reasonable if the thing he was intending to do was an illegal act.
            2. Ex. Felony to furnish contraband to minor. Misdemeanor to furnish contraband to adult. D sells contraband to 17 year old with reasonable belief buyer is 18. Since selling to an 18 year old is still illegal, D can be convicted of the higher felony.


  1. For strict liability crimes, mistake of fact is not a defense.
    1. Ex. If D drives over the speed limit because his speedometer is inaccurate, he will e convicted of a strict-liability driving offense, even if the speedometer's faulty calibration was unknown and unforeseeable to him.
    2. Any mistake of fact is legally irrelevant because there is no MR element to negate.


  1. MPC
    1. Mistake is allowed if it negates the MR required to establish a material element of the offense.
    2. Ds are only guilty of the offense they believe they are committing, not the actual one being committed if there is a mistake of fact.


  1. Mistake of Law
    1. Mistake of law, regardless of whether the mistake is reasonable or unreasonable, generally does not constitute a defense.
      1. Ex. People v. Marrero
        1. Federal correctional officer misinterpreted statute saying peace officers could carry a gun. Statute only applied to state peace officers.
        2. Held that mistake of law is not a defense even if the mistake is reasonable.
      1. Reasoning
        1. The point of punishing the legally mistaken is to encourage the social benefit of individuals' knowledge and respect for the law.
        2. Mistake of law defense would encourage ignorance.
        3. Avoids subjectivity in the law.
        4. Allowing mistake of law could encourage contrived mistake of law claims.
    1. Exceptions
      1. Excuse Defenses
        1. Reasonable Reliance Doctrine
          1. D will be excused because of a mistake of law if D reasonably relies on an official statement of the law, later determined to be erroneous, obtained from a person or public body with responsibility for the interpretation, administration, or enforcement of the law defining the offense.
          2. Valid sources for reasonable reliance…
            1. A statute later declared to be invalid
            2. A judicial decision of the highest court in the jurisdiction
            3. An official but erroneous interpretation of the law secured from a public officer in charge of its interpretation, administration, or enforcement (AG of state or US).
          1. Invalid sources for reasonable reliance…
            1. D's own interpretation of a statute.
            2. Advice of private counsel about the law.
        1. Fair Notice Rule
          1. A person who is unaware of a duly enacted and published criminal statute may successfully assert a constitutional defense. (rare!)
          2. Factors that make a statute subject to a fair notice defense…
            1. Punishes an omission (failure to register)
            2. D's duty to act was imposed on the basis of a status (presence in a city)
            3. Conduct was not illegal in itself.


  1. Ignorance or Mistake of Law that Negates MR
    1. For specific intent offenses…
      1. A mistake of law, whether reasonable or unreasonable, is a defense if the mistake negates the specific intent in the prosecuted offense.
      2. Ex. D takes car to mechanic.
        1. D refuses to pay what he thinks is an excessive bill, and the mechanic refuses to deliver the car. D returns that night and takes her car. D is prosecuted for larceny.
        2. D was unaware of a state law that provides that a mechanic may retain possession of a repaired vehicle until the bill is paid.
        3. Court would hold that D erroneously believed that she had a right to possession of the vehicle; thus, this mistake of law negated the "intent to steal the property of another" element. D not guilty.
      1. Ex. Cheek v. U.S.
        1. Statute says that D must "willfully failing to file a tax return."
        2. D thought he didn't have to pay taxes. Didn't file take returns.
        3. Held that D was entitled to jury instruction on mistake of law since D had to fail to file and had to know he had a duty to file. It does not matter if his mistake is unreasonable, just that he actually believed it. A factor to consider in this is the complicated nature of the tax code.
    1. For general intent offenses…
      1. A mistake of law, whether reasonable or unreasonable, is probably not a defense to a general intent crime.
      2. Ex. D has non-consensual sex with V. At time of actions, D thinks V is his wife, so it would not be rape. However, ceremony was invalid, V is not his wife. Held that the mistake is no defense.
    1. For strict liability offenses…
      1. A mistake of law is never a defense.
      2. No MR to negate.
  1. MPC and Mistake of Law
    1. Mistake of law is a defense if it negates MR (see above).
    2. Otherwise, neither K nor R or N as to whether conduct constitutes a crime or as to the existence, meaning, or application of the law determining the elements of an offense is an element of such offense.
      1. Exceptions for reasonable reliance same as common law.
      2. Allows for defense for lack of fair notice if the statute is not known to D and was not published or otherwise reasonably made available to D.  (narrower than common law construction, statute could be published there)