24 May Criminal Defenses: Mistake of Fact and Mistake of Law
Any reputable criminal defense attorney knows how important it is to assess a client’s criminal case for any potential legal defenses to the crime(s) being charged. There are specific defenses that are in the California criminal jury instructions (CALCRIM) that lay out all available affirmative defenses for crimes. Two of the most common defenses are Mistake of Fact and Mistake of Law.
Mistake of Fact Criminal Defenses
The Mistake of Fact defense is found in California jury instructions at CALCRIM 3406. This defense is available for general intent crimes and specific intent crimes. The only difference is, for a general intent crime, the mistake has to have been “reasonable”. For a specific intent crime, the mistake does not have to be reasonable, which is why this is a great defense for specific intent crimes. The defense provides :
“The defendant is not guilty of the charged crime if he/she did not have the intent or mental state required to commit the crime because he/she [reasonably] did not know a fact or [reasonably and] mistakenly believed a fact. If the defendant’s conduct would have been lawful under the facts as he/she [reasonably] believed them to be, (he/she) did not commit the crime.
If you find that the defendant believed that (alleged mistaken facts) [and if you find that belief was reasonable], (he/she) did not have the specific intent or mental state required for the crime . If you have a reasonable doubt about whether the defendant had the specific intent or mental state required for the crime, you must find (him/her) not guilty of that crime.”
Mistake of Law Criminal Defenses
Generally, it is not a defense to a crime if the defendant did not know he/she was breaking the law or believed the act was lawful. But when a person is charged with a “specific intent” crime, a different rule applies. This defense is very common for any type of fraud crime because all fraud offenses require a “specific intent to defraud”. The California jury instruction for the Mistake of Law defense is found at CALCRIM 3411, and provides the following when a fraud crime is charged:
“The defendant is not guilty of fraud if he/she made an honest or good faith mistake about the law, if that mistake shows that he/she did not have the specific intent required for the crime[s] of fraud . If you have a reasonable doubt about whether the defendant had the specific intent required for fraud, you must find him/her not guilty.”
The Importance of Circumstantial Evidence
It is common for the prosecution to rely on circumstantial evidence to try to convict a person for a crime when the person has not admitted to doing it. When this type of situation is played out in front of a jury, the jury is instructed on the circumstantial evidence instruction found at CALCRIM 225 which provides:
“…before you may rely on circumstantial evidence to conclude that the defendant had the required intent, you must be convinced that the only reasonable conclusion supported by the circumstantial evidence is that the defendant had the required intent. If you can draw two or more reasonable conclusions from the circumstantial evidence, and one of those reasonable conclusions supports a finding that the defendant did have the required intent and another reasonable conclusion supports a finding that the defendant did not, you must conclude that the required intent was not proved by the circumstantial evidence. “
It is the job of the criminal defense attorney to argue this instruction to the jury during closing arguments. Pointing out to the jurors that if both sides have a reasonable interpretation of the circumstantial evidence, the prosecution’s version which points to guilt and the defense version that points to innocence, the jury is required under the law to accept the defense version and find the person not guilty of the crime.
For anyone in need of a criminal trial attorney, contact the Kenney Legal Defense Corporation to start preparing your criminal defenses.