People v. Marrero

Court of Appeals of New York, 1987.

69 N.Y.2d 382, 515 N.Y.S.2d 212, 507 N.E.2d 1068.

Dressler, pp. 177-184


Facts: The defendant was a prison guard in Connecticut and was arrested in New York for possession of an unlicensed firearm.  The defendant claimed that he thought he was allowed to carry the gun because he was a “peace officer” by the definition contained in New York statutes.  The trial judge dismissed the indictment, but an appellate court reversed the dismissal and thus barred the defendant from arguing he was exempt from criminal liability under the statute.  He was convicted at trial and appealed.


Issue: Should the defendant have been convicted even though he was mistaken in regard to the law?


Rule: Mistake in regard to law may negate intent but it is not a defense to a strict liability crime.


Analysis: The court interprets the New York Penal Code to include the Model Penal Code treatment of “ignorance or mistake”.  Overall, the court construes the mistake of law defense narrowly on utilitarian grounds and cautioning against the slippery-slope policy implications of allowing a broader version of the defense.


In a dissenting opinion, Hancock employs retributivist arguments, along with a smattering of specific deterrence language, to argue against the majority’s narrow construction of mistake of law.  Hancock’s main point is that it is wrong to punish someone who is not blameworthy.  Hancock alleges that punishing people despite good faith mistake is tantamount to punishing a law-abiding person.


Hancock says that the maxim “Ignorance is no excuse” comes from Medieval times when people were commonly found guilty of crimes without intent.  The judge says that over time, retributivism has become more accepted and utilitarianism less so, such that crimes by and large now require a guilty mind.  Hancock claims, however, that the maxim has hung around as mere dogma.


Hancock raises the question of whether the interpretation of the majority went against the “Rule of Lenity”.  Hancock also claims that the legislature clearly intended the opposite result that the majority claims.


Conclusion: The verdict was upheld.


Notes and Questions


1.     Kahan makes a “yeah, but” argument about the utility of learning the law depending upon whether or not ignorance is an excuse.




5.     I guess Weiss thought maybe reasonably that he was doing what he was doing with authority of law, and thus one of the elements is cast into doubt.  It also sounds like he might have been under duress, whereas Marrero had plenty of time to gather information and get different opinions about the legality of his conduct.


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