Criminal Defenses: Mistake of Law and Mistake of Fact

There are numerous misunderstandings that individuals have about how the law operates. An often repeated but inaccurate saying is that ignorance of the law does not operate as a defense. In actuality, some individuals who are mistaken about the law might have strong legal defenses for that very reason. A skilled attorney is often able to help individuals create a strong defense to criminal charges in these scenarios.

Mistake of Fact Criminal Defenses

A mistake of fact occurs when a person believes an incorrect piece of information about a central element of a crime. A person who buys stolen property believing that the seller was a valid owner of the property, for example, has made a mistake of fact.

Mistake of fact defenses are available for general intent crimes as well as specific intent crimes. For a general intent crime, however, a person’s mistake must be reasonable, while for a specific intent crime, the mistake does not have to be reasonable.

In the case of a specific intent crime, a person cannot be found to have the intent or mental state to commit a crime if the person did not know a fact or msitakenly believed a fact. As a result, if a court has a reasonable doubt about whether a defendant had the specific intent or mental state required for a crime, a person will be found not guilty of committing that crime. Mistake of law is a defense to the crime of willfully filing a false income tax return. To convict a person of this offense, law enforcement is required to prove that a person had the specific intent to violate tax laws.

Mistake of Law Criminal Defenses

In nearly all cases, a person cannot raise a successful defense on the basis that the person did not know the law was being broken. As a result, if a crime is considered general intent, a person is often unable to successfully a raise a mistake of law defense.

If  person is charged with a specific intent crime, however, there are a unique set of circumstances that apply. A person who is charged with a specific intent crime can raise a successful defense if the individual made a good faith mistake about the law. For example, theft is a specific intent crime. If a person reasonably believed that he or she owned a particular item, that person would be able to raise a successful defense of honest mistake of fact if the individual is charged with having committed theft.

Contact a Skilled Criminal Defense Lawyer

If you have been charged with a criminal offense, it is important to consult with a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney like the legal counsel at Shein and Brandenburg to obtain the assistance that you need. In many cases, there is likely a strong legal defense that can be raised in response to the charges you face. Contact our law office today through our free case evaluation.