Using Mistake of Fact or Law as a Defense

In criminal law, mistake of fact and mistake of law are both defenses that can be used to exonerate criminal charges if deemed reasonable. To be convicted of relevant criminal charges the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the criminal defendant acted with criminal intent rather than as an honest mistake.

What is a mistake of fact and how can it be used as a defense?

Mistake of fact is commonly referred to as a mistaken belief or understanding of an individual that has led them to commit an illegal act unknowingly. To use mistake of fact as a defense, the defendant must disprove specific intent and/or disprove elements of the crime as material to the investigation.

The following is an example to illustrate the term:
Laura is standing in line anxiously waiting to pass through the security check at the airport. Laura’s plane leaves in 20 minutes and her boarding gate is located on the opposite end of the airport. With only 7 minutes left to board her plane, Laura passes through the metal detector and grabs a wallet, identical to hers, out of a bucket and races to her gate. Laura makes her flight with just a minute to spare. Once on the plane and settled into her seat, Laura takes out the wallet to buy a movie. To her surprise, Laura immediately discovers she mistakenly grabbed someone else’s wallet.

What is a mistake of law and how can it be used as a defense?

Mistake of law is a defense where an individual is mistaken or ignorant about the law or believes the law to be different than what it actually is. As most citizens are familiar with and aware of the laws of their state or community, it can be especially challenging to utilize this defense against most charges. Individuals who find themselves moving or traveling from state to state or city, have the potential to find themselves misinterpreting or completely ignorant to the law of their new home state or municipality.

The following is an example to illustrate the term:
Tom is 16 years old and lives in Whitefish, Montana. Since South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana have the lowest age to drive in the US where a full license can be issued at just 16 years old, Tom is now a fully licensed driver. However, in three days Tom and his 17 year old brother will embark on a long road trip to Missouri where drivers must be at least 18 years old to be issued a full license. After crossing Missouri’s state line, Tom and his brother are pulled over and charged with underage driving and other traffic violations. Tom and his brother claim to not have known that their driver’s licenses would not be legal outside of South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana.

Some instances when mistake of law can be used as a criminal defense are:

When the law is not published
When the defendant(s) relied upon a statute that was later overturned or held to be unconstitutional
When the defendant(s) relied upon a judicial decision
When the defendant (s) relied upon an interpretation by an appropriate official
When using mistake of fact or law as a defense, it is important to note that while reliance on an interpretation of an official may include a judge or federal or state agency it is not a defense that considers reliance on interpretation of a private attorney thus it is important to an attorney that is trustworthy and knowledgeable in criminal law.

If you have been arrested or are facing criminal charges, contact Michael B. Cohen to find out how the law applies to the facts of your case!

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