Criminal Law Class Notes 9/16/03


People v. Navarro


Navarro took some wooden beams, mistakenly believing they were abandoned.  This is a common claim made by defendants: a mistake of fact.


Navarro wants a certain jury instruction that basically says if he made a good faith mistake he should be acquitted, even if it was entirely unreasonable.  The judge did not accept this jury instruction, but rather told the jury to acquit only if the mistake was reasonable.


The appellate court says that the defendant’s instruction was correct.


If the belief was unreasonable, did he act in a morally culpable manner?  We would more or less be saying he was negligent.  There would be a mens rea, and thus some level of culpability.  Why did the court reverse the verdict?  He lacked the specific intent required for the crime.  Moral culpability is general intent.


What would Model Penal Code § 2.04 say about this case?  It says either the mistake does or does not negate the required mens rea for the crime.  If the mens rea is the “intent” or “purpose” to steal, and the mistake proves that the defendant did not have such a purpose, then the defendant must be acquitted.  The Model Penal Code rules!


“Mistake of fact” is not a true affirmative defense.  It is really a challenge to proof beyond a reasonable doubt of mens rea.


The handout on mistake of fact analysis


The first thing to do when you’re in a non-Model Penal Code jurisdiction is to ask: is it a general intent, specific intent, or strict liability crime?  If it’s strict liability, you’re done.  Intent doesn’t matter, and thus mistake doesn’t matter.


If you have a specific intent crime, you ask if the mistake relates to the specific intent portion of the crime.  In the case of Navarro, his mistake directly relates to his intent to steal.  This being the case, we use the so-called “elemental” analysis.  Does Navarro’s mistake of fact negate the specific intent element of the offense?  In this case, we may well argue that it does.


If you have a general intent crime, then at common law you must apply a “culpability” analysis.  You must ask whether the defendant’s state of mind was blameworthy, and in particular you must ask whether or not their mistake, and in turn their behavior, was reasonable.


This is complicated!!!  The Model Penal Code is better, Dressler thinks!  In the Model Penal Code, you always apply “elemental” analysis.


Regina v. Prince and the “moral wrong” doctrine


Prince believed the girl he was taking away was 18, but she was really 14.  The jury found that his mistake was reasonable.


The court takes the offense to be a general intent crime.  A reasonable mistake means there is no culpability.  However, the conviction was upheld.  Why?  Taking an 18 year old away from her parents was considered immoral.


When you use the “moral wrong” doctrine, you look at the world through the eyes of the defendant and assume the facts as the defendant himself understood them.  This doctrine says that if the defendant acted immorally, it is reasonable for him to assume the risk that the circumstances are different from what he thinks they are and thus be found guilty of some crime.  Here, we end up asking: are you a bad guy?  The answer turns out to be yes, even though there is a reasonable mistake of fact.


Many jurisdictions do not apply this doctrine anymore.  It is a position that some jurisdictions still do use.  What’s wrong with this doctrine?


One issue is: how do we determine that certain conduct is immoral?  Basically, judges will decide.  In England in 1875, it was probably uncontroversial that an 18-year-old should not be taken from her parents.  In the United States, however, we have a much greater diversity of viewpoints.


The other problem is the principle of legality.  If it’s so wrong to take an 18-year-old away from her parents, make it a crime!  There’s a lack of notice and the risk of the court creating crimes.


We do not live in a world where everything that is immoral is illegal.  There are lots of things that people do that are immoral that are not a crime.  It is up to the legislature to draw a line between the illegal and the merely immoral.


This is a very controversial doctrine, but it’s out there, and sometimes it “bites you” when you least expect it.


Hypothetical: battery upon a police officer


Say you apply the “moral wrong” doctrine to this situation.  Is it morally wrong for someone to push someone they believe is attacking her?  No, so under this doctrine she is acquitted because through her eyes, she was acting in self-defense.


Hypothetical: transportation of minors across state lines for prostitution


The “legal wrong” doctrine is basically the “moral wrong” doctrine with the word “legally” substituted for the word “morally”.  Under common law doctrine, the defendant would assume the risk that the facts were not as he believed them to be, and be found guilty of a more serious crime.  It can be argued that this is unjust, because he may be convicted of a crime that requires a higher mens rea than he has.


Under the Model Penal Code, he will be convicted of the lesser crime.


It’s crucial at common law to distinguish between general intent, specific intent, and strict liability.  However, sometimes courts will fall back on the “moral wrong” or “legal wrong” doctrines when dealing with a general intent crime committed under a reasonable mistake of fact.


People v. Marrero and mistake of law


How did this case get to the Court of Appeals of New York?


The defendant was under the impression that he was exempt from a firearms law because he believed he was a “peace officer” under the definition in the statute.  The trial court dismissed the indictment, but the state appeals court reinstated the indictment.


Six judges interpreted the statute.  Three felt that Marrero was a peace officer and three felt that Marrero wasn’t.  This, Dressler submits, is a clear example of a reasonable mistake of law.


What do we learn from the case is the common law rule when a person claims a mistake of law?  The common law says that “Ignorance of the law is no defense.”  We probably all learned this in elementary school.


This case is not applying common law; it is applying a statute.


What is the rationale for such a harsh rule?  They claim, as does Holmes, that admitting the excuse of mistake of law encourages ignorance of the law.  This is a classic utilitarian statement.  We’re willing to concede that this individual does not deserve punishment, yet our interest in persuading people to learn the law outweighs that individual’s interests.


The dissent takes a retributivist stance.  Hancock says we mustn’t punish someone whose mistake of law is reasonable, because that person is not blameworthy.


The Holmes position is the classic explanation for the common law rule that ignorance is no defense.  However, there is a utilitarian argument for why the maxim is wrong.


If ignorance will never get us off, we have no incentive to learn the law.  However, if we make a reasonable effort to learn the law and are thus given a defense, we have a good incentive.


The Model Penal Code approach


§ 2.02(9) does not ordinarily require proof that a defendant knew that a law existed or understood it.


§ 2.04(1) creates an exception to that general proposition.  If the definition of the crime itself requires knowledge of the law and you didn’t know it, then you lack one of the necessary elements for the offense.


§ 2.04(3) provides a limited set of circumstances in which even though knowledge of the law isn’t an element of the crime, we allow a defense.  We don’t allow a defense based on a personal misunderstanding of the law, but rather a reasonable reliance on an official statement of the law from a public official or some other source.  A casual or unofficial interpretation of the law from a public official is no good.


How does a person get an official interpretation of the law in the real world?  You request (probably through your attorney) an “interpretive letter” from the Attorney General of your state.  These letters can be found in bound volumes in your local law library.  As long as you reasonably rely on these letters, they can’t come after you.  This defense is very, very narrow.


Basically, we do not give people a defense from a mistake of law, except for very few special cases where they made a reasonable mistake based on an official statement of the law.


There are a few other exceptions.


Next time, we will look at the last note in Marrero.


Back to Class Notes