When Is Mistake of Fact a Defense?

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What Are Mistakes of Fact?

In criminal law, a mistake of fact occurs when a defendant is wrong about a particular fact involved in the case. For instance, if a person believes that a street is named B Street, but it is actually named 1st Avenue, that is a mistake of fact. Similarly, a criminal mistake of fact is where a defendant took action because they were mistaken about a particular fact, such as the identity of another person, or the ownership of a piece of property.

What Are Mistakes of Law?

Mistakes of fact are usually contrasted with mistakes of law, which is a mistake pertaining to a criminal law or statute. For instance, if the defendant did not stop at a red light because they thought it was legal to do so, this is a mistake of law, since laws require you to stop at a red light. A mistake of law is usually not a valid defense (as in the saying, "ignorance of the law is no excuse")

When Can Mistake of Fact Serve as a Defense?

Generally speaking, a mistake of fact is not a defense in itself. It becomes useful to a defendant’s case if the mistake serves to cancel out one of the elements of proof for that crime. For instance, the elements for proving burglary in some cases include: the unlawful or unauthorized entry into the property of another person, with the intent to commit a felony therein.

Here, if the felony entered the property because they mistakenly believed it was their own land, it might serve to cancel the element of entering the property of another person. Another similar example is where a person takes another person’s property because they mistook it for their own property.

What Is a Disputed Fact?

A dispute of fact is different from a mistake of fact. A disputed fact refers to instances where there is debate during trial about a particular fact in the case, such as the plaintiff’s age, or the amount of money that is missing. A mistake of fact has to do with the defendant’s perception and state of mind and their motivation in committing the conduct.

In most cases, a criminal case can only be appealed if there is a dispute over a matter of law. For instance, if the judge gave improper instructions about a law applicable to the case, it might be a reason for appeal. This is not true for disputes of fact. Disputes of fact are completely settled in the lower court, and conclusions of fact carry over into appeals later on.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with Mistake of Fact Defenses?

Raising a defense in a criminal case can often involve many different legal definitions and concepts. It’s in your best interests to hire a lawyer for help if you need assistance with a criminal case. Your attorney can represent you in court and can inform you of any defenses that are available for your situation. Criminal laws are different from place to place, and so concepts such as mistakes of fact may vary by jurisdiction.

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Last Modified: 11-15-2013 04:49 PM PST

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