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Mistake of Fact as a Defense in Criminal Cases

What is a Mistake of Fact Defense?

A mistake of fact is a type of defense that can be used in a criminal case to demonstrate that the defendant did not have the criminal intent to commit a crime. Under mistake of fact, the defendant contends that they did not have criminal intent because of a misunderstanding regarding a particular fact.

Mistake of fact and mistake of law are both valid legal defenses a defendant might use to challenge certain criminal charges. These defenses are based on the concept that they acted based on an honest mistake, meaning they lacked the required mental state, known as “mens rea.”

Mistake of Fact as a Defense to Criminal Charges
Defendants might be able to use a mistake of fact defense to criminal charges to show lack of intent.

Put simply, in a mistake of fact defense, the defendant claims they didn't have the intent to commit the crime because they did not understand a particular fact. Likewise, in a mistake of law defense, a defendant will show they didn't have the mental state to commit a crime due to a misunderstanding of the law.

A defendant can use these defenses in either misdemeanor or felony cases. They do not apply to every type of crime, and the mistake of fact or mistake of law defense arguments must be reasonable under the circumstances. In other words, they must be made in good faith to have a chance of success.

One typical example demonstrating a mistake of fact defense is the coat check theft example. Imagine a situation where people hang their coats on a coat rack at a restaurant or other establishment. One individual finishes up and heads for the door and grabs what he thinks is his coat, puts it on, and drives home. Once he gets home, he realizes he has the wrong coat.

In this scenario, his taking the coat can be excused due to a mistake of fact as he never intended to steal anyone else's coat. If he decides to keep the coat after realizing it isn't his, he has formed a criminal intent, and a mistake of fact defense will not be available.

In this article by our Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers, we will examine this topic in more detail below.

How is a Mistake of Fact Different from a Mistake of Law Defense?

Under a mistake of law defense, a defendant contends that they did not have criminal intent because of a misunderstanding of the law. This is a tough defense to establish as it is expected that ignorance of the law is not a defense.

Both mistake of fact and mistake of law are potentially valid legal defenses for some crimes.

In the limited cases that a mistake of law defense can be made, the error of law must be honest and made in good faith. An example of this can deal with a misinterpretation of state law.

Imagine a situation where an individual seeks to grow and sell apples with other farmers and interprets a hypothetical state statute thinking that they do not need a license to sell apples but actually do.

Under this statute, selling apples with other farmers without a license is a criminal offense. He is subsequently charged with a criminal conspiracy to sell apples without a license.  

A mistake of law defense can help negate the criminal intent requirement as he did not believe he was conspiring to do anything illegal. Mistake of fact, on the other hand, refers to a legal defense where someone who was accused of a crime shows that:

  • They did not have the intent to commit an offense, and
  • This is factual because they misunderstood a particular fact.

As noted, this defense only works when the defendant's mistake was reasonable and honest.

California Criminal Jury Instructions Explained

When a jury tries a case, the jury is given instructions about the law and how to carry out their duties as jurors. The California jury instruction for a mistake of fact defense can be found at CALCRIM 3406, which states that:

  • “The defendant is not guilty if they did not have the intent or mental state required to commit the crime because they reasonably did not know a fact or reasonably and mistakenly believed a fact.”
  • The instruction further states that “if the defendant's conduct would have been lawful under the facts that they reasonably believed them to be, they did not commit the alleged crime.”

This instruction is only given if the evidence is presented during the trial to demonstrate that the defendant had a mistake of fact.

A jury must determine if the defendant's belief of a specific fact was reasonable under the facts and circumstances. If the jury does believe so, then the defendant can be acquitted appropriately.

Related Content

Can a Mistake of Fact Defense Be Used in a Strict Liability Case?

No. Neither mistake of fact nor mistake of law defenses are available in strict liability cases. Strict liability crimes are crimes where the individual's state of mind does not matter.

The only thing that a prosecutor must demonstrate is that the defendant committed the act and that the act was against the law. A typical example of this is driving under the influence (DUI). If an individual is driving with a blood alcohol content of .08 or higher, they are guilty of DUI.

Contact Eisner Gorin LLP to Review Your Case
Contact Eisner Gorin LLP to examine the details and legal options in your criminal case.

It does not matter if the individual believes that they aren't drunk or don't have a high enough blood alcohol content to be guilty of DUI. The simple fact that there is enough alcohol currently in the individual's bloodstream is enough to secure a conviction for DUI.

Mistake of fact is often used in rape cases where the accused claims that the alleged victim consent. In this situation, you will have to show that you had a valid and reasonable belief that the other party voluntarily consented to sexual relations with you. This is not easy, and it will require showing the victim acted in a manner to convey consent.

For example, perhaps the victim voluntarily allowed fondling, and there was some discussion about having sex. In this scenario, you might have formed a reasonable belief that she consented to have sexual intercourse, even if there was no specific agreement.

Mistake of fact and mistake of law defenses are only available to attack the criminal intent of an individual if criminal intent is necessary to secure a conviction. If you have been charged with a crime, we might be able to negotiate with the District Attorney's Office for reduced charges or even a case dismissal.

It might also be possible to avoid the formal filing of criminal charges in the first place by negotiating with law enforcement and the prosecuting agency. This process is commonly known as prefiling intervention, and a “DA reject.”

Eisner Gorin is based in Los Angeles County, and we serve people across Southern California. You can reach us for an initial case consultation by calling (310) 328-3776 or filling out our contact form.

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