When defending certain crimes, you may use the mistake of fact or mistake of law defenses to prove that you broke the law due to an honest error. The mistake of fact or law legal defenses are reserved for crimes that involve intent, and they can apply to misdemeanor and felony charges.
Understanding the Mistake of Fact Defense
Criminal defense attorneys use the mistake of fact defense when a defendant misunderstood facts that led to the crime. However, to successfully prove this defense, the jury must agree that the error was reasonable and honest.
When proving a mistake of fact, your defense lawyer must demonstrate that since you misunderstood a particular fact, you did not possess any intent to cause a criminal offense. If your attorney can show that you made a reasonable mistake, the court may dismiss your criminal charges.
However, if the jury believes that you should have been aware of your mistake, you may not be able to use the mistake of fact defense. An example of this is if a neighbor repeatedly told you not to trespass onto their property. Since you were aware that you were not allowed on the premises, it would not be reasonable for you to believe that you could enter the area by mistake.
Applying This Defense to a Crime
The mistake of fact defense can apply to crimes where it is plausible for the defendant to make an honest and reasonable mistake. A prime example of using this defense is in cases of theft or property damage.
For example, imagine you are at a party and leave your cellphone on the counter. When it comes time to go, you accidentally grab another person’s phone that looks similar to yours. This is a reasonable and honest mistake because you thought the phone was yours, therefore negating your intent to commit theft.
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Understanding the Mistake of Law Defense
The mistake of law defense applies to cases where the defendant does not possess intent (or mental state) to commit a crime because they do not understand the law. A jury will only accept this type of defense if the defendant can prove they are being honest and acted in good faith.
Establishing a mistake of law defense can be difficult because citizens have a duty to understand laws. Therefore, ignorance of the law is not always a valid excuse for committing a crime. Specifically, mistake of law defenses can only be applied when:
- The law has not been published for the general public.
- The defendant relied upon a judicial decision that was overruled after they committed the crime.
- The defendant relied upon a law that was later deemed unconstitutional.
- The defendant acted based on a misinterpretation from an authoritative official (such as a judge or federal agency).
However, it is essential to note that a defendant’s mistake must be within reason. For example, a defendant cannot use an outdated case from over 100 years ago to defend him or herself. A jury will only allow the mistake of law defense for those they believe acted in good faith and made an honest mistake interpreting the law.
Applying This Defense to a Crime
The mistake of law is a plausible defense in situations where it is reasonable for a defendant to misinterpret or misunderstand the law.
For example, imagine you just received your driver’s license, and your father taught you how to drive. While learning, your father told you that you do not have to come to a complete stop when approaching a stop sign and a rolling stop is permissible when there are no other cars present.
You are driving your vehicle and approach a stop sign with no other cars around. You perform a rolling stop, only to have a police officer pull you over immediately after. In this situation, you may try to fight the traffic violation by explaining that you misunderstood your state’s stop sign laws and did not know that you always have to come to a complete stop.
Mistake of Fact or Law and Strict Liability Crimes
You may use the mistake of fact or law defense in various crimes, but not in strict liability cases. A strict liability case does not require a prosecutor to prove that a defendant intended to act illegally or negligently. Instead, the defendant can receive a conviction as long as the prosecutor proves that they committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
Since intent does not matter in a strict liability case, you cannot use the mistake of fact or law defense. Strict liability crimes vary between states, but common examples include:
- DUIs and DWIs
- Statutory rape
- Selling alcohol to minors
If you are unsure if your case qualifies for the mistake of fact or law defense, review it with an experienced criminal defense attorney. These legal experts can evaluate the facts and circumstances of your charges. They will then determine what legal action you should take to fight or reduce your penalties.
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Understanding the mistake of fact or law defenses is confusing, which is why we recommend partnering with a knowledgeable legal expert. A professional can determine if your charges qualify for these defenses and help you understand your legal rights when fighting criminal charges.
The criminal defense lawyers at Simmrin Law Group are ready to defend you. If you need a legal defender, contact us now. We will provide a free consultation to determine what steps you need to take to defend your criminal charges successfully.