Mistakes of Fact

At one time or another, we’ve all defended our actions by saying “it was a mistake.” This sentence has a lot of different uses. Your “mistake” might be something as simple as grabbing the wrong brand of breakfast cereal or as severe as a car collision. For legal purposes, however, this everyday usage is too vague. For that reason, legal terminology distinguishes between “mistakes of fact” and “mistakes of law.”

A mistake of law is one where the defendant claims to have been unaware of the law. Most legal systems do not allow defendants to reduce their liability for their actions on these grounds. Although there have been cases from time to time where this defense has applied, courts ordinarily do not accept it as valid. Since laws exist publicly—that is to say, everyone in a law’s jurisdiction is subject to it—ignorance of the law is not sufficient for reducing liability.

An Innocent Mistake?

A mistake of fact, in contrast, can sometimes be used as a defense. The distinction between this and a mistake of law can be difficult to understand, but essentially defense by mistake of fact involves demonstrating that the defendant believed that the circumstances were such that her actions would be legal. As opposed to simply not being aware that an action was illegal, as with mistakes of law, someone innocent by mistake of fact had reason to believe they were acting within the law.

An example might help. If you walk into a store, stuff a candy bar in your pocket, and walk out, you’ve committed a theft. On the other hand, if you go through the checkout with two candy bars and the cashier only charges you for one, you could argue that you did not realize the cashier had failed to scan both candy bars. In this case, when you walk out of the store, you have every reason to believe you bought the candy bars legally, even if in reality you did not pay for one of them.

Contact Us

If you have been accused of a crime, but had every reason to think you acted legally, a defense by mistake of fact could apply in your case. To discuss this and other legal options, contact the experienced Champaign criminal defense attorneys of Bruno Law Offices today. Call (217) 328-6000 for a free consultation.