mistake of law is a defense when....?

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shmoo597
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mistake of law is a defense when....?

Postby shmoo597 » Sun May 02, 2010 7:14 pm

Ok - so, my understanding is that ignorance/mistake of the law is basically never a defense, UNLESS this ignorance/mistake shows a lack of mens rea for specific intent crimes.

Lets say I am charged with possession of narcotics with intent to distribute. But lets also say that I was under the mistaken and honest belief that I could distribute these narcotics because I am selling marijuana to people with medical cards and in CA I think this is legal.

Under the law, you are punished for intending to sell narcotics - but I have the mistaken belief regarding the drug laws in CA, that what I am selling is a legal substance/not a narcotic as defined by the law. Do I not have the requisite mens rea due to a mistake of law here?

Is this example a valid application of the mistake of law defense? If not, what would one be?

Also, if this is allowed, couldn't you say you were mistaken about the law for every specific intent crime?

Any light that could be shed on this confusing topic would be appreciated. Thanks.

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macattaq
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Re: mistake of law is a defense when....?

Postby macattaq » Sun May 02, 2010 7:57 pm

Under the MPC, it is allowed if it negates the required mens rea. So you're right in that regard. But, as to your hypo, there is a two step test.

Step one: is it a mistake as to the same body of law or a different body of law.
Ex: in your hypo it would be the same body of law, because you are concerned with criminal statutes, rather than say, laws governing dispensing medicine.
If different type of law, then it is treated as a mistake of fact.

Step two: not a defense unless one of three exceptions:
1) Laws not reasonably made available: doesn't apply because ignorantia legis non excusat does. The laws are presumably available on the internet, etc., making it easy for you to look them up.

2) Reliance on an official's interpretation (ex: attorney general, rather than your actual attorney).
Doesn't apply.

3) The law allows for the mistake to be a defense.
You didn't say, so I can't say what would happen here, but I'm guessing that in a state like CA, this wouldn't be written into the law.

EDIT: If your situation falls under one of the three exceptions in the second step, then it is a valid defense.

Now, let's say that your mistake of law is treated as a mistake of fact, because it deals with a different body of law (say health law and dispensation of medicine). Here, where you wonder if it is possible to use mistake of law as a defense to any specific intent crime, there are two further considerations. First, it only negates the mens rea, but provides an elements-based defense. So, you now have to prove a set of elements. If this is the case, it doesn't mean you walk. It just means that the prosecution has an opportunity to poke holes in your elements. The prosecution can also use the moral wrong doctrine or strict liability to hold you accountable. So there is plenty of opportunity for the prosecution to nail you. Second, even if the mistake of law is sufficient to negate mens rea, and the prosecution isn't successful at stopping your defense, if you violated the reasonable care standard, you could be found negligent. I imagine that in this case, negligence would be difficult to prove (and I haven't started studying for torts yet), but definitely doable. Thinking about it, it seems like the drafters thought about this possibility, and built in plenty of safeguards at different levels, in order to prevent people from doing this.
Last edited by macattaq on Sun May 02, 2010 8:52 pm, edited 1 time in total.

shmoo597
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Re: mistake of law is a defense when....?

Postby shmoo597 » Sun May 02, 2010 8:21 pm

So the only time that mistake of law is a valid defense is when it is based on your mistake of fact? ie, you thought the facts were one way (that the car was yours), so that when you broke into it and drove it home, you did not have the mens rea to have intentionally taken someone else's property and break the law? (ie you were mistaken about the law as it applied to you here?)

I am having a hard time distinguish between mistake of law and fact. I know the MPC does away with the distinction, so its obviously tenuous, but can you shed any light on this?

And thanks, your answer was very helpful.

Leeroy Jenkins
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Re: mistake of law is a defense when....?

Postby Leeroy Jenkins » Sun May 02, 2010 8:25 pm

It's still intent to distribute EVEN if you're intending to sell under the belief that your action is legal.

Not a good hypo for a mens rea showing

lawrookie
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Re: mistake of law is a defense when....?

Postby lawrookie » Sun May 02, 2010 8:49 pm

Lots of crimes dont require ANY mens rea/intent. "stict liability" If you thought she as 18 and she was 17, or thought AOC was 17 and it was 18, you still go to prison.

Others are "general intent" example trespass, when you intend to step on your dads land and step on his bitchy neighbors land by mistake, still had intent to step on land=sued possible civil fine too,

not everything is specific intent. Mistake in law or not.

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macattaq
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Re: mistake of law is a defense when....?

Postby macattaq » Sun May 02, 2010 8:51 pm

shmoo597 wrote:So the only time that mistake of law is a valid defense is when it is based on your mistake of fact? ie, you thought the facts were one way (that the car was yours), so that when you broke into it and drove it home, you did not have the mens rea to have intentionally taken someone else's property and break the law? (ie you were mistaken about the law as it applied to you here?)

I am having a hard time distinguish between mistake of law and fact. I know the MPC does away with the distinction, so its obviously tenuous, but can you shed any light on this?

And thanks, your answer was very helpful.


Ahh, I just noticed that I forgot to put something in my prior post. If your specific situation falls under one of the three exceptions in the second step, then it is a valid defense.

It is only treated as a mistake of fact where there is a mistake as to the type of law. For example, if there is a dispute over taxes. Your mistake is as to which law controls, because maybe there is a tax law in the property code, where you looked. But in reality, your specific situation was governed by the tax code. Then you get busted for tax evasion. In this situation, your mistake of law (as to the specific type and nature of the body of law) would be treated as a mistake of fact.

I get the sense that you are looking for a bright line rule, as to when a mistake of law is a defense. There isn't really one. Rather, there are multiple questions that need to be asked before it can be used as a cross cutting defense. Also, I highly recommend flow charting both mistake of law and mistake of fact. That may help you to see how to approach a mistake situation.

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A'nold
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Re: mistake of law is a defense when....?

Postby A'nold » Sun May 02, 2010 8:59 pm

Under the common law, mistake of law is NEVER a defense, unless it is set out in a statute that you should know to be convicted out of fairness concerns.

lawrookie
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Re: mistake of law is a defense when....?

Postby lawrookie » Sun May 02, 2010 9:05 pm

Isn't the intent that matters the intent to do the act, not to commit a crime?

For example: Mistake in law is to mistaken believe that something is illegal when its not. I could think its illegal to eat meat on Fridays but the cops can't convict me for it even if I confess with tears in my eyes since its not illegal,....BUT....if I think its legal to punch nerds, I still get busted despite my lack on knowledge of it since I intended to punch them all the same.

GZL
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Re: mistake of law is a defense when....?

Postby GZL » Mon May 03, 2010 4:58 pm

Ignoring the reliance on authority issue, where the argument really gets construed as: mistake of law is a defense when it is shown that the law itself was mistaken, it's still not *quite* true that mistake of law is never a defense under common law. If the specific intent required is one which requires or assumes knowledge of legal status, it can be a defense. For example, some laws centered on child custody which require the specific intent of interfering with another's legal rights to visitation, or some of the mistaken "rightful replevin" of personal property cases. However, that issue is usually avoided by saying that a mistake of the legal status of a particular thing or person is a mistake of fact, not a mistake of law.

For example, in the intent to distribute hypo, the intent required is the intent to distribute the substance (irrespective of its legal status,) not the intent to break the law.

Renzo
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Re: mistake of law is a defense when....?

Postby Renzo » Tue May 04, 2010 10:05 pm

You're right about mistake of law being a defense when it negates the required mens rea, but generally that relates to a law other than the one you are violating. The best example I know came from the casebook: a tenant who built a cabinet to enclose AV equipment then ripped it out to get the speakers out before he moved. He was charged with destruction of property, but since he was mistaken as to property ownership law (not criminal law), it negated the mens rea for the criminal charge (he thought he was destroying his own property, and it wasn't unreasonable of him to think that).

270910
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Re: mistake of law is a defense when....?

Postby 270910 » Tue May 04, 2010 11:25 pm

Renzo wrote:You're right about mistake of law being a defense when it negates the required mens rea, but generally that relates to a law other than the one you are violating. The best example I know came from the casebook: a tenant who built a cabinet to enclose AV equipment then ripped it out to get the speakers out before he moved. He was charged with destruction of property, but since he was mistaken as to property ownership law (not criminal law), it negated the mens rea for the criminal charge (he thought he was destroying his own property, and it wasn't unreasonable of him to think that).


Perfect. Mistake of non-criminal law by and large = mistake of fact.




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