Utah Criminal Defense - Salt Lake Criminal Attorney
76-2-304 - Ignorance or Mistake of Fact or Law
charges under Utah law include elements both of prohibited conduct
(actus reus) and a guilty mental intent (mens rea). In order to convict
a defendant of criminal charges, a prosecutor is generally required to
present evidence proving both the actus reus and mens
A prosecutor's proof of the required mental state can sometimes be
undermined by evidence that the defendant made a mistake of fact or was
ignorant of the law relevant to his conduct.
While Utah criminal
law does provide potential affirmative defenses based on mistake of
fact or ignorance of law, these defenses can be difficult to raise and
require strict compliance with statutory requirements. If you are
considering raising ignorance or mistake of fact or law as a defense to
criminal charges, you are strongly encouraged to consult with an experienced
defense lawyer. Based in Salt Lake City, criminal
Stephen Howard provides legal services to clients
throughout Utah. Contact
us today to arrange for an initial confidential consultation.
Factual Mistake as a Defense to Criminal Charges
order to serve as a valid defense to criminal charges in Utah, a
mistake of fact must disprove the requirement mental state element of
the crime. In other words, if no crime would have been committed if the
facts were really as they were believed by the defendant, then the
defendant may be found not guilty. Consider the following hypothetical
goes to a weekend party at a friend's house. As she is getting ready to
leave, she picks up what she believes is her cell phone. Without
realizing it, she has mistakenly taken a nearly identical cell phone
belonging to Beth, another party guest. Upon discovering that her cell
phone has been taken, Beth calls the police. The police investigate all
of the party guests, and find Beth's cell phone in Alice's car.
this scenario, Alice believed that she was taking her own cell phone.
If the facts had truly been as believed by Alice, there would have been
no crime because she would have taken her own property. Thus, under a
mistake of fact defense, a jury could find Alice not guilty of the
crime of theft
even if the jury was convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Alice
actually did take Beth's cell phone without permission.
a mistake of fact can serve as an affirmative defense to some criminal
prosecutions, this defense does not apply to crimes that are considered
"strict liability" crimes. While most crimes require proof of both
prohibited conduct and a guilty mental state (actus reus and mens rea),
strict liability crimes have no required mental state. Because a strict
liability crime is punishable without regard to the defendant's mental
intent, mistake of fact does not serve as a defense to these crimes.
Consider the following example:
is driving down the freeway. He has recently had his speedometer
professionally checked and calibrated. The freeway has a
speed limit of 65 mph. His speedometer reads 62 mph, and he is being
passed by just about every other car on the freeway. A police officer's
radar gun reveals that Charles is actually traveling at 71 mph. The
officer pulls Charles over, and gives him a citation for speeding.
After receiving the citation, Charles returns the car to the shop that
was supposed to calibrate his speedometer, and discovers that the shop
made an error.
In this scenario, even though Charles took
all reasonable steps to ensure that he was travelling at or below the
posted speed limit, and even though he made an honest and reasonable
mistake of fact as to his actual speed, he could still be convicted of
speeding if the fact finder at trial found that the officer's radar was
accurate and that Charles was in fact traveling at 71 mph. Because
speeding is a strict liability offense in Utah, Charles' mistake of
fact does not serve as a defense.
Ignorance of the Law as a Defense
is said sometimes that "ignorance of the law is no excuse." The Utah
legislature has codified this general rule in Utah Code 76-2-304, but
has provided some very narrowly defined exceptions where ignorance or a
mistake of law can serve as a defense to a criminal charge.
order to successfully raise a mistake of law defense, there must first
be evidence showing that the defendant was unaware of the existence of
or made a mistake concerning the meaning of a criminal law. As a result
of the defendant's ignorance or mistake of law, the defendant must have
"reasonably" believed that his actions did not constitute a criminal
The final element of a mistake of law defense is often
the most difficult to satisfy. The defendant's mistake or ignorance of
the law must have resulted either from an "official statement
the law contained in a written order or
grant of permission by an administrative agency charged by law with
responsibility for interpreting the law in question" or from a "written
interpretation of the law contained in an opinion of a
court of record or made by a public servant charged by law with
responsibility for interpreting the law in question."
If all of
these elements are met, then mistake or ignorance of the law can serve
as an affirmative defense to criminal prosecution. But a defendant may
still be convicted of a lesser included offense of the charged crime if
the defendant's mistake of law would still have resulted in a lesser
Choosing a Utah Criminal Defense Attorney in Salt
of fact and ignorance of law can be difficult defenses to raise under
Utah law. If you are charged with a crime and believe such a defense
may be applicable to your case, you are stronglyo encouraged to seek
the assistance of an experienced Utah criminal defense attorney.
Salt Lake criminal lawyer
Stephen Howard has extensive experience defending a wide range cases,
ranging from homicide to white collar crime, and from the most serious felony
charges to less serious misdemeanors
His track record includes not guilty verdicts and dismissals on some of
the most serious charges on the books in Utah.
With offices centrally located in Salt Lake City, Mr. Howard offers
legal services to clients throughout Utah. Contact us
today to arrange
for an initial confidential consultation.
RELATED CRIMINAL CODE SECTIONS