Cheek v. United States

Supreme Court of the United States, 1991.

498 U.S. 192, 111 S.Ct. 604, 112 L.Ed.2d 617.

Dressler, pp. 189-193


Facts: Cheeks didn’t pay his taxes.  He was indicted for failing to file and tax evasion.  In his defense, he argued that he sincerely believed he didn’t have to pay his taxes and thus he acted without the mens rea required for the crimes.  Cheeks was found guilty and he appealed to the Seventh Circuit, which upheld his conviction, and subsequently to the United States Supreme Court.


Issues: Does an honest but unreasonable belief negate willfulness?


Rule: A claimed good-faith belief need not be reasonable in order to be considered as a defense.


Analysis: The Court cites United States v. Murdock and later cases to establish that “willfully” in the tax code should be taken to mean “voluntary, intentional violation of a known legal duty”.  The Court says that it is impossible to be aware that the law imposes a duty if at the same time you believe such a duty does not exist.  It is argued that it is not required that such a belief be reasonable.


Blackmun dissents, saying that Cheek’s defense is barred by the fact that the Internal Revenue Code has been around so long and that he seeks to be mentally competent.


Conclusion: The verdict was vacated and remanded.


Notes and Questions


1. Cheek is claiming ignorance of a very well-known law, while Marrero is claiming ignorance of a very obscure law.


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