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Utah Criminal Defense - Salt Lake Criminal Attorney

76-2-304 - Ignorance or Mistake of Fact or Law

Most criminal 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 rea. 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 criminal defense lawyer. Based in Salt Lake City, criminal attorney 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

In 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 example:

Alice 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.

In 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.

While 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:

Charles is driving down the freeway. He has recently had his speedometer professionally checked and calibrated. The freeway has a posted 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

It 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.

In 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 offense.

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 of 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 criminal offense.

Choosing a Utah Criminal Defense Attorney in Salt Lake City

Salt Lake Defense AttorneyMistake 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.

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Serving Salt Lake, Davis, Weber, Utah, Cache, Tooele, Summit, Box Elder, and Wasatch Counties, and all of Utah.

Attorney Stephen Howard practices as part of the Canyons Law Group, LLC and Stephen W. Howard, PC.

Offices in Salt Lake and Davis Counties
560 South 300 East, Suite 200, Salt Lake City, UT 84111
952 S. Main St., Suite A, Layton, UT 84041

Call now to arrange for a confidential initial consultation with an experienced and effective Utah criminal defense lawyer.

In Salt Lake City, call 801-449-1409.
In Davis County, call 801-923-4345.

Stephen W. Howard, PC

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