When is Mistake of Fact a Defense?

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 What Is Criminal Law?

Civil law addresses behavior that causes some sort of injury to a person, or other private party, through the use of lawsuits. The repercussions for any parties that are found liable for these acts are generally monetary, but may also include court-ordered remedies such as injunctions or restraining orders.

Alternatively, criminal law addresses behavior that is considered to be an offense against society, the state, or public. This remains true even if the victim is an individual person. Someone who is convicted of a crime will be forced to pay fines, and they may lose their freedom by being sentenced to jail or prison time.

No matter if someone is being charged with a serious crime or a minor crime, the accused person still has the right to a trial, as well as certain other legal protections. These will be further discussed below.

Criminal procedure refers to the overall legal process of adjudicating claims for those accused of violating criminal laws. The overall intention of all criminal procedures is known as the “presumption of innocence,” which means that a suspect is considered to be innocent until they are proven guilty.

Criminal procedure generally includes matters such as:

The federal government or a state government are the only parties which can bring a criminal case against a defendant. This is why cases are stylized as US v. Someone, or State v. Someone. Whether the accused is charged in federal court or in a state court largely depends on what crime they are being charged with, as well as where the alleged offense occurred.

While each state has their own set of criminal laws, there are certain Constitutional rights that apply to every defendant, no matter what that crime is or where it happened. These rights include:

  • The Right To a Speedy Trial: The Sixth Amendment guarantees each criminal defendant the right to a speedy trial, in order to prevent an accused person from being kept in jail for extended periods of time without adjudication;
  • The Right To a Jury: The Sixth Amendment also guarantees the right to a trial by jury. While many jurisdictions allow the defendant to waive a jury in favor of a bench trial, in which guilt is determined by a judge, this may be the defendant’s choice only. Additionally, this right is universal with criminal prosecution only, as civil trials have their own rules governing jury rights;
  • Miranda Rights: The result of an especially famous Supreme Court case, Miranda Rights give the criminal defendant access to an attorney regardless of whether they can afford one in order to aid in their defense; and
  • Protection Against Self-Incrimination: Also known as “pleading the fifth,” this Constitutional protection states that a defendant cannot be forced to testify against their own interest.

What Is A Mistake Of Fact?

A mistake of fact is considered to be a quasi criminal defense, in which a defendant attempts to limit their liability for a crime based on an incorrect assumption of fact, rather than criminal intent. In order to be convicted of most crimes, the defendant must have committed the crime while possessing a specific state of mind.

Or, in order to commit a crime, the defendant must have acted with intent. The one exception to this rule would be when the defendant is charged with a “statutory” offense, such as statutory rape.

There are some different kinds of intent. An example of this would be how intent may be general, meaning that the defendant must be aware of the factors constituting the crime. They must also have the desire to commit the criminal act.

Some specific crimes require more than this basic level of intent in order to produce a conviction. These crimes require what the law refers to as “specific” intent. In order to act with specific intent, the defendant must have the desire to commit the wrongful act, as well as the desire to achieve a certain result by committing the wrongful act.

Specific mistakes of fact can eliminate culpability for a crime when they are genuine mistakes; had the incorrect assumption been true, the act itself would not be a crime. A common example of mistake of fact involves property ownership, such as attempting to enter a car that you mistake for your own vehicle.

Another example would be grabbing a suitcase from the baggage claim of an airport that is identical to your own baggage. In either case, you are not guilty of theft as long as you correct the mistake after it is realized.

Mistakes of law are different from mistakes of fact, as mistakes of law occur when the person did not know that their actions were illegal. An example of this would be a dog owner who walks their dog off its leash in the city park, not realizing that a city ordinance exists prohibiting unleashed dogs. Simply put, ignorance of the law is no defense, while mistake of fact could serve as a defense under specific circumstances.

When Is A Mistake Of Fact Considered To Be A Legal Defense?

Mistakes of fact are not legal defenses per se; rather, they are opportunities to eliminate the prosecution’s ability to prove certain elements of a crime. As was previously mentioned, most crimes have either a general intent or specific intent requirement. This means that the prosecution must prove that the defendant intended to commit the act that was illegal. If the defendant did not have the criminal intent due to a mistake of fact, then they may be found not guilty.

An example of this would be if a store owner stocks their shelves with sealed, one-pound bags of flour that they receive from a supplier. Unbeknownst to the owner, the supplier also works in the heroin drug trade, and accidentally sent a pound of heroin in one of the flour packages to the store. The store owner had no idea that heroin would be in the package, and sold it to a customer.

The store owner is not likely to be convicted for the illegal sale of heroin, because they never had the intent to sell heroin; they intended to sell flour. However, if the store owner is in the business of selling heroin and cocaine, and accidentally sells heroin to a client who wanted to purchase cocaine, the store owner’s mistake will not protect the owner from prosecution. The mistaken criminal intent of selling one illegal substance does not negate the actual criminal intent of selling the other.

Alternatively, a fact in dispute is common between prosecutors and defendants, and is different from a mistake of fact. Facts in dispute are generally the subject of a trial in which one side argues that one fact occurred, and the other side argues that something else actually occurred.

An example of what is frequently disputed between sides during a trial or negotiation would be an amount of money, merchandise, or illegal substances. Another example may be the identity of the person seen committing the crime, such as when a prosecutor says that it was the defendant, and the defendant denies that it was them.

In general, facts in dispute cannot be appealed; only mistakes of law or errors in law committed by a judge are considered to be appealable.

Do I Need A Lawyer For Help With Mistakes Of Fact As A Legal Defense?

If you have been accused of a crime, you should immediately consult with a criminal defense lawyer. Your attorney can help you understand your legal rights and options under your state’s specific laws, and can determine what defense may be available to you based on the specifics of your case. Additionally, an experienced attorney will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.


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