What Is the Mistake of Fact Defense

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 What is a Defense Strategy?

In the context of criminal law, a defense strategy is an overall approach which a defense lawyer will utilize in order to provide legal relief for a defendant. Defense strategies may include applying various legal arguments and concepts.

These strategies may include examining any mistakes of fact which may serve to support the defendant’s claim of innocence. Although a mistake of law is typically not considered to be a criminal defense, a proper defense strategy considers all aspects of a situation, including any mistakes of fact or law.

These issues will be accounted for because they can often provide information regarding a defendant’s state of mind at the time of the alleged offense.

What is a Mistake of Fact?

The mistake of fact defense is a specific defense which is raised in certain types of criminal cases. This defense provides that the defendant should not be found guilty because they were mistaken regarding a fact which is essential to prove the crime.

Every crime requires that the prosecution prove various elements in order for a defendant to be found guilty. If a mistake of fact undermines proving one of these elements, it may serve as a defense.

For example, one of the elements required to prove malicious mischief includes the malicious destruction of another individual’s property. If the defendant reasonably and honestly believed that they were destroying their own property, which is a mistake of fact, it may serve as a defense for the malicious mischief charges.

Is Mistake of Fact Automatically Raised in a Court of Law?

No, a mistake of fact defense is not automatically raised in a court of law. This defense must be raised by the defendant and their attorney based on any mistake of fact on the part of the defendant.

Similar to other types of defenses, a defendant will be required to specifically plead a mistake of fact when they are presenting their defense case. A court will not assist with identifying any specific defenses.

Because of this, it is important that a defendant hire a qualified legal professional to assist them during a criminal trial.

When is a Mistake of Fact a Legal Defense?

A mistake of fact is not actually a legal defense per se, but rather is an opportunity to eliminate the ability of the prosecution to prove certain elements of a criminal offense. The majority of crimes require the prosecution to show either general intent or specific intent.

In other words, the prosecution is required to prove that the defendant intended to act in a way that was illegal. If a defendant did not have the required criminal intent because of a mistake of fact, then they may be found not guilty.

For example, suppose a store owner stocks their shelves with sealed one pound bags of flour which they receive from a supplier. Suppose that, unbeknownst to the store owner, the supplier also works in the heroin drug trade and, by accident, sends a pound of heroin in one of the flour packages on the store shelf.

If the store owner was not aware of this fact and sold the package containing heroin to a customer, they would likely not be convicted for the illegal sale of heroin because the store owner did not intend to sell heroin, they intended to sell flour.

If, however, the store owner is actually in the business of selling heroin and cocaine and, by accident, sells heroin to a client who was purchasing cocaine, the store owner’s mistake of selling the wrong drug will not protect the owner from prosecution. In this example, the mistaken criminal intent of the sale of one illegal substance does not negate the criminal intent of selling another drug.

What is an Example of Mistake of Fact Defense?

A mistake of fact defense may be used in any scenario where, if the fact were to be true, an element required to prove the criminal offense would be negated and the defendant could not be found guilty or accountable for the crime because they did not have the intent to commit the crime. For example, if an individual takes another individual’s property by accident, believing that the property is their own, they may be able to use the mistake of fact defense and claim they did not intend to take the property.

This mistake of fact negates the intent to deprive the property of another element of the offense of theft. Mistakes of fact are related to the facts and circumstances that surround the alleged criminal activity.

Examples of mistakes of fact may include, but are not limited to:

  • Mistakes regarding an individual’s identity or characteristics, for example, their age or gender;
  • Misconceptions regarding the ownership of property, for example, believing that a property item was the individual’s own;
  • Errors in identifying:
    • locations;
    • street names; and
    • other geographic characteristics; and
  • Mistakes regarding:
    • weights;
    • measures; and
    • other measurements.

What Are Some Other Types of Criminal Defenses?

There are numerous other types of criminal defenses that may be available in a case and which may be used in addition to the mistake of fact defense, including:

  • Self-defense;
  • Intoxication or incapacitation;
  • Insanity; and
  • Alibi, for example, the defendant was at a different place during the time that the crime was committed.

It is important to note that a mistake of law, or not being aware that an action was illegal, is usually not enough to serve as a complete defense. Defenses which may be available to a defendant vary widely by state.

What About a Fact in Dispute?

Facts in dispute are common between defendants and prosecutors but are different from mistakes of fact. A fact in dispute is typically the subject of a trial where one side argues that a certain fact occurred while the other side argues that another fact actually occurred.

Disputes regarding an amount of money, merchandise, or illegal substances are frequently disputes between the two sides of a negotiation or a trial. Another example of a fact in dispute may include the identity of the individual who was seen committing the crime, such as when a prosecutor argues it was the defendant but the defendant denies that fact.

A fact in dispute is generally not appealable. Typically, only mistakes of law or errors in law which were committed by the judge are appealable.

Should I Hire a Lawyer for Help with Mistake of Fact Defenses?

Mistakes of fact may be important parts of criminal cases. You should hire a criminal lawyer as soon as possible if you need representation in a criminal case.

A defense strategy may involve numerous different legal theories and laws. Your defense strategy is best handled by a professional who is trained to best present your defense to the court.

Your lawyer will advise you regarding the laws in your state and available defenses. If the prosecution desires to negotiate a plea deal, your lawyer will represent you during negotiations as well as any time you have to appear in court.

Having a lawyer on your case will help ensure that your rights are protected and the best defenses available are presented in your case.


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