People make honest mistakes every day, and sometimes those misjudgments or misunderstandings can cause a person to take an action that would normally be illegal. However, the law makes concessions in certain cases where an individual makes a mistake of fact and does not mean to commit a crime.
How the Law Defines a Mistake of Fact
A mistake of fact refers to when a person unintentionally commits an offense because of misunderstanding the reality of a situation or a key detail. Therefore, such a defense focuses on a defendant’s intent and understanding of the circumstances.
The mistake of fact defense is not allowable in every type of case. Furthermore, the judge or jury must agree that the mistake of fact was something a reasonable person would do.
For a defendant to establish that they made a mistake of fact, the defense team could present documents or recordings that show the individual had no intent to commit the offense in question.
Witness testimonies can also establish the character and mindset of the defendant as a person who made a reasonable error. The expressions of the defendant, other parties to the event and even expert witnesses could support this claim.
Examples of Mistakes of Fact
A mistake of fact could happen in a variety of circumstances. Consider a few examples:
- Theft allegations: A person might take a piece of property believing it to be one’s own or being under the impression that the owner had loaned or given it to them.
- Assault charges: A defendant might genuinely believe they were under attack or imminent threat and acting in self-defense.
- Drug possession: A person might not have known they were in possession of an illegal substance or may not have known that a substance in their possession was, in fact, illegal.
- Trespassing incidents: The accused might have believed that they had a right to enter a property, or the exact boundary or ownership of a particular area could have been unclear.
- Sexual assault allegations (not involving a minor): A defendant might have sincerely believed that there was mutual consent during a sexual act because of misunderstanding the other party’s intentions.
In these cases, a mistake of fact defense could be viable and permit an accused person to receive an acquittal. Talk to an attorney at The Jeffcoat Firm if you’re facing such a situation and need to determine if a mistake of fact applies in your case.
Exceptions for Cases Involving Strict Liability
Cases of strict liability do not allow a defendant to present a mistake of fact defense. In such cases, a person’s state of mind or understanding of the facts has no bearing on whether the court can acquit the individual.
An example of a strict liability crime in South Carolina is driving over the speed limit. Drivers cannot argue that they did not know they were speeding or that they were speeding by accident and use that reasoning as a valid excuse to get out of a ticket.
Other common examples of offenses with strict liability include:
- A person who drives under the influence
- A business that sells alcohol to a minor
- A pet owner whose dog bites someone
- An adult who has consensual sexual activity with a minor
In such cases, the defendant needs to consider another line of defense. The team at The Jeffcoat Firm can help you decide how to proceed if you face any of these charges.
Alternatives to the Mistake of Fact Defense
Even if a person sincerely made a mistake of fact, it might not be the right defense for a particular case. Also, a legal team might find that other criminal defenses can bolster a defendant’s case in addition to a mistake of fact argument. Consider other possible strategies.
Presenting an Alibi
Optimally, a defendant can demonstrate not committing the crime at all. An alibi shows that the defendant was not at the location at the time of the offense or did not have the opportunity to commit the violation. Often, having an alibi should be enough to clear a defendant of a crime.
Pleading Insanity or Mental Incapacitation
A plea of insanity is not merely a dramatic ploy to escape from justice. Mental illness affects many people, and a mental defect or disease might cause a person to lose the capacity “to distinguish moral or legal right from moral or legal wrong,” according to Title 17, Chapter 24 of the South Carolina Code of Laws.
If the court renders a “not guilty by reason of insanity” verdict, the defendant would receive orders to obtain treatment from the State Hospital for up to 120 days. The facility would assess the patient’s condition to determine when the individual was safe to leave.
Whenever a person senses an immediate threat of serious bodily harm, sexual attack or death, that individual can respond with deadly force to protect oneself or another person. This right to defend requires a person to have no fault in bringing on the attack. With this defense, like many others, the court considers what a reasonable person would do in a similar instance.
Proving Involuntary Intoxication
The prosecution has to establish that a defendant understood the nature of their actions and had the state of mind to form sufficient intent. Involuntary intoxication can show that even though a defendant committed an offense, the individual was not in a mental state to commit the crime or form the intent necessary to commit the crime.
Someone might have tricked the defendant into consuming an intoxicating or mind-altering substance, such as drugs or alcohol. In the intoxicated state, the defendant may have acted uncharacteristically and unsafely without the intent to harm anyone. Such a defense could lead to an acquittal.
The Mistake of Law Defense
A related defense to a mistake of fact is a mistake of law. These are circumstances where a person intentionally committed an act but did not believe the action was illegal.
A defendant has to establish being ignorant of the law or misunderstanding the application of the law. Proving mistakes of law is often challenging because residents of a location generally have the responsibility to know and follow the local regulations.
Also, pleading ignorance of a law is seldom a solid defense. In most instances, a mistake of law only satisfies the court if the defendant can prove that a reasonable person could not understand a law or its application.
Situations where a mistake of law is a sound defense include instances when:
- An applicable official interpreted the law erroneously to the defendant.
- The defendant was relying on a judicial decision that a higher court later overruled or a law that the courts later deemed unconstitutional or overturned.
- The authorities had not yet published the applicable law.
As with mistakes of fact, a mistake of law must be reasonable, and the defendant’s legal team would have to make this clear to a judge or jury.
Determine Which Defense Is Right for Your Case With the Attorneys at The Jeffcoat Firm
Proving mistakes of fact can be challenging and may require additional lines of defense. However, you don’t have to figure out the finer points of the law and face the prosecution on your own.
The Jeffcoat Firm is ready to help you fight criminal charges so you can protect your career and reputation, as well as get your life back. Contact us for a free consultation to find out how we might be able to assist.