Criminal Defense

Is “Mistake of Fact” a Defense to Criminal Charges?

May 16, 2023 by Madison Ferguson in Criminal Defense  
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Is “Mistake of Fact” a Defense to Criminal Charges?

A mistake of fact can serve as a criminal defense by showing that the defendant did not possess the necessary intent for the crime. A mistake of fact can lead to unintentional crimes, like taking a bag that resembles one’s own. In such cases, the person is not guilty of theft, as they did not intend to commit the crime.

Reasonable mistakes concerning facts are generally deemed as mistake of fact. Proving that a mistake of fact was unintentional can enable someone to avoid liability in certain situations. A mistake of fact rarely serves as a complete criminal defense. A critical differentiation must be made as a mistake of fact refers to inaccuracies regarding the circumstances related to a crime and not the legality of an act.

Differentiating Between Mistake of Fact and Mistake of Law

Mixing up facts and laws can lead to committing a crime unknowingly. Mistake of law and the mistake of fact are two different things. The latter is when someone misunderstands a situation, while the former is when someone breaks the law unintentionally. Knowing the laws of one’s community is expected, and a lack of knowledge is seldom a reliable defense for criminal charges, whether it be a mistake of law or fact.

Mistake of law is applicable when the offense was committed before the publication of the law, reliance on an outdated or modified statute, or trusted an official interpretation of the law.

This is an example of a mistake of law. In 1957, Lambert v. California was a Supreme Court case involving a convicted felon who violated a city statute in Los Angeles by not registering as a felon because she was unaware of it. The Supreme Court overturned Lambert’s conviction and fine due to lack of evidence regarding the probability of her knowledge.

The Use of Mistake of Fact As a Defense in Criminal Charges

Mistake of fact is often used as a defense in specific intent crimes, such as assault, kidnapping, criminal threats, burglary, theft, etc. The accused must have deliberately intended to commit an act that resulted in a crime for these offenses. Essentially, if the defendant believes a mistaken fact that faults their conduct as a crime, they cannot be held guilty of the offense. Defendants who genuinely and reasonably misunderstood their behavior or actions may lack the necessary criminal intent to face criminal charges.

One instance involves claims of Petty Theft under California Penal Code Section 484(a) PC. Defendants who genuinely believed that they owned or were retrieving a particular item for its owner could argue an honest mistake of fact if ever accused of theft. To commit theft, one must have the deliberate intention of taking someone else’s property or money. Without this intention, a crucial element of the crime is missing and cannot be proven.

Mistaking the facts can result in a reduced charge, from a severe charge to a related but less serious one. Suppose one genuinely believed that another person was in danger of being killed and took prompt action to prevent it by killing the attacker. In that case, they might not be held criminally responsible. If the person who was killed was not actually attacking the other person, but the other person still killed them, then the charge would be reduced from murder to manslaughter.

Mistake of fact defenses can be raised with law enforcement and prosecutors before the filing of charges. Under certain circumstances, if the prosecuting entity recognizes a genuine error in judgment, they may opt not to pursue criminal charges.

The defense of a mistake of fact may not be employed solely to counter an escalated penalty, rendering it unavailable in such instances. For instance, if the offender stole jewelry from a jewelry store but they were mistakenly unaware of the outrageous value of the stolen jewelry leading to the prosecution team imposing severe criminal penalties for the high-value stealing, the defense of mistake of fact concerning the substantial amount of the defendant’s thievery cannot be utilized to repudiate the increased sanctions. In this instance, the theft of precious jewels qualifies as an offense, with the defendant exhibiting an inaccurate perception of the stolen property’s worth. Consequently, the legal defense of a mistake of fact cannot be invoked.

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