Mistakes: What Role Do They Place In Criminal Defense?

Experienced Criminal Defense Lawyer Serving Defendants in Cedar Rapids

When an individual is charged with a crime, he or she must determine all of the possible defenses and explanations that exist to show a jury why the charges are incorrect. In some cases, defendants may be able to establish that the charges are entirely wrong – they were never at the location where the crime occurred, or didn’t commit the actions that are alleged.

In other instances, a criminal defendant may argue that he was party to the actions that occurred, or did the things that he is accused of, but that the actions were an accident and not actually a crime because a mistake occurred.

For example, a defendant who is accused of shoplifting may admit that he did take a shirt out of the store without paying for it, but argue that he did not intend to shoplift the shirt. He may claim that he simply forgot that it was in his bag as he walked outside. According to the defendant, this mistake should not make him a criminal nor require him to face jail time.

While many potential defenses exist for criminal defendants, the defense of mistake can be an important one in certain circumstances. While mistakes do not unilaterally excuse individuals from their conduct, they can negate important elements of certain crimes and clear defendants of their criminal charges.

What Kind of Mistake Defenses Exist In Cedar Rapids?

There are two types of mistake defenses that exist under Iowa law. They are (1) mistake of fact, and (2) mistake of law. Mistakes of fact are much more common defenses and apply in a much broader range of circumstances. A mistake of fact occurs when a defendant misunderstands, or mistakes an important factual circumstances related to the commission of the crime. As in the example above, the defendant mistakenly believes that he does not have the shirt in his possession when he actually does.

Mistakes of fact must be honest and reasonable in order to act as a defense. If the criminal defendant in the example had received an urgent phone call about an emergency and rushed out of the store forgetting that he had the shirt in his bag – this would be an honest and reasonable mistake.

Conversely, in a situation where the defendant was not in the midst of a crises and had been repeatedly told to make sure he paid for the shirt before leaving the store – but still failed to do so – it would be nearly impossible for him to argue that he had “mistakenly” taken the shirt.

Mistakes of fact are important because they often negate the elements of knowledge or intent in a crime. For instance, most theft crimes require an intent to take another’s property, or an intent to deprive someone of something that is rightfully theirs. When a defendant can show that he mistakenly thought he didn’t have the property, or mistakenly believed that it was his property – then these intent elements are negated.

Another example would be in fraud cases that require an intent to defraud. For example, let’s say that an individual uses fake dollar bills or fraudulent checks to buy groceries at a grocery store and is then charged with fraud. Fraud crimes in Iowa typically require that the defendant knowingly or willingly engaged in the fraud. If the defendant did not know that he was using fake dollar bills at the grocery store, or mistakenly believed they were real, this might negate the knowing element of his fraud charges.

Mistake of Law

Mistake of law is a much rarer, and harder to prove, defense. Mistake of law requires the defendant to prove that he did not realize that his actions were unlawful at the time he committed them. Thus, he was not aware that he was committing a crime. For example, perhaps an individual is charged with jaywalking, but did not know that jaywalking was a crime at the time he crossed the street.

The difficulty with a mistake of law defense is that courts, and the government, place the onus on individuals to be aware of the laws of the place where they reside, and to know what is legal and illegal activity. Citizens cannot use their own ignorance of the law to avoid criminal responsibility for their actions. If individuals were allowed to avoid criminal conviction by simply disclaiming knowledge, every murderer would claim not to know that murder was a crime.

Instead, mistakes of law are allowed only in very particular circumstances.

  • The law that makes the action a crime has not actually been published or is not publicly available
  • The defendant relied on a law in taking certain actions and that law was later overturned
  • The defendant relied on a particular decision of a judge that was later overturned
  • The defendant relied on the interpretation of an important official that turned out to be wrong

For obvious reasons, these four situations will only rarely arise in criminal cases. Few individuals consult statutes, judicial decisions, or interpretations of public officials before undertaking certain actions. Even fewer find that the decisions they relied upon were later overturned and resulted in criminal conduct.

As another example, assume that an individual relies on a judicial decision that says it’s okay to drive without headlights as long as you intend to fix them. That decision is later overturned, but the individual continues to drive without his headlamps – he might be able to claim mistake of law were he charged for a traffic violation.

Iowa Attorneys Evaluating Whether Mistake Could Be a Defense in Your Case

If you believe that your criminal charges have arisen from some fundamental misunderstanding of circumstances, or the law at the time, mistake may be a potential defense that you can use at your criminal trial. First you must determine whether your mistake was honest and reasonable and then, if a mistake of law, whether any of the applicable circumstances apply.

Trusted criminal defense attorney Jonathan D. Schmidt has many years of experience helping criminal defendants to evaluate their best options for a strong defense in court, including which arguments are most likely to appeal to a court or jury. If you would like to talk about your defense options with a qualified defense attorney, contact his office online or at (319) 423-3031.