Criminal Law

Criminal Law Defenses - Ignorance or Mistake

Ignorance or mistake can be raised as a defense to criminal charges. Ignorance or mistake of the law will be a defense to a criminal charge only in limited circumstances. The courts have rarely allowed the defense of ignorance of the law to succeed. However, the courts have reasoned that the defense may be viable if the act in question is not obviously wrong. The reasoning behind this is that criminal punishment might not be appropriate in such cases unless it can be proven that the defendant intentionally disobeyed the law.

Ignorance or mistake of fact can be a defense to a criminal charge when the conduct in question would have been lawful had the facts been what they were reasonably thought to be. An example of mistake of fact is when a customer intends to purchase merchandise from a store, but the cashier fails to ring up all of the merchandise. The customer may be arrested outside the store and charged with larceny. If the customer was genuinely unaware that some of the merchandise was not paid for and he left the store as the owner of the merchandise, then his lawyer might be able to argue that an honest mistake of fact eliminated the customer's intent to commit a crime.

Ignorance or Mistake of Fact

Generally, ignorance or mistake as to fact or law is a defense if:

  • The ignorance or mistake takes away the purpose, knowledge, belief, recklessness or negligence required to establish a material element of the offense; or
  • The law provides that the state of mind established by ignorance or mistake constitutes a defense.

The defense is not available if the defendant would have been guilty of another offense had the situation been as he thought. In such a case, the defendant can be found guilty of the offense that he would have been guilty of had the situation been as he supposed.

Ignorance or Mistake of Law

A belief that conduct doesn't break the law is a defense to a criminal charge when:

  • The law defining the offense isn't known to the defendant and hasn't been published or made reasonably known to the defendant prior to the conduct in question; or
  • The defendant acts in reasonable reliance on an official statement of the law that is afterwards determined to be invalid or wrong.

When the defense is based on an official statement of the law, the statement in question must be contained in an actual written law, a judicial decision, an administrative order or an official interpretation of law by someone who is responsible for interpreting the law. The defense of ignorance or mistake of law must be proved by a preponderance of the evidence.

Proving Ignorance or Mistake

If the law that the defendant is charged with breaking states that ignorance or mistake is a defense, then all that needs to be proven is his ignorance or mistake. If the law doesn't state that ignorance or mistake is a defense, then two things must be proven. First, the defendant's ignorance or mistake. Second, due to the ignorance or mistake, he didn't have the required mental state to be guilty of the crime.

There are a couple of common approaches that can be used when trying to prove ignorance or mistake of the law. One is that the defendant had no personal knowledge of the law and the law was not made reasonably available to him prior to the conduct in question. The other approach is to prove that the defendant acted in reliance on an official statement of the law that was afterwards determined to be incorrect.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • What "mental state" is required to be guilty of the crime for which I am charged?
  • How can I be guilty of a crime that I didn't commit just because I thought I was committing the crime?
  • Have you ever successfully used an ignorance or mistake defense - isn't it difficult?

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