Difference between Mistake of Fact and Mistake of Law Defense?

In the world of criminal law, there are two distinct defense scenarios – mistake of fact and mistake of law. While the two may sound pretty similar to each other, a trained legal professional knows that a significant difference exists between the two. While one of the possibilities is applicable in a wide array of cases, the other one may produce a good result in a few limited scenarios.

What is Mistake of Fact in Arizona?

Mistake of fact is a defense scenario that can be used whenever the defender is unaware of the fact that their actions constitute a criminal offense.

Here’s a simple example to illustrate the term. You buy a car from an owner believing that they have the right to complete the transaction. Later on, you find out that the vehicle is stolen and the person you bought from is not the owner. Since you didn’t know that the vehicle was a stolen one, a mistake of fact defense will be usable.

There is one exceptional case in which a mistake of fact defense is not going to be justifiable.

A person committing a crime because they are not aware of Arizona regulations will not benefit from the mistake of fact defense. Just because someone isn’t knowledgeable of the existence of a certain law does not mean that the particular regulation is non-existence.

What is Mistake of Law?

The mistake of law defense will apply in a very limited range of cases. It is described in detail in Arizona Revised Statutes 13-204(B).

Mistake of law applies to the one scenario that doesn’t qualify as a legit defense possibility in the case of mistake a fact. A person who has committed a crime isn’t aware that the particular activity is a crime in Arizona.

Obviously, such a line of defense is the exception rather than the rule in criminal trials.

Individuals are generally expected to be aware of their legal obligations in a certain community. Only a couple of situations turn mistake of law into a viable defense possibility:

  • Whenever a law is brand new or it hasn’t been published yet
  • Whenever the law was interpreted in a specific way by an applicable official
  • Whenever the defendant acted on the basis of a judicial decision that was later on overturned
  • Whenever the defendant has acted upon a statute that is either overturned or deemed unconstitutional in the future

Just like in the case of mistake of fact defenses, the reliance on a particular source of legal information has to be reasonable for the defense to hold. A person interpreting a very old regulation that has obviously been updated multiple times through the years cannot rely on this defense scenario.

As far as the interpretation by an applicable official goes, there should be proof that the defendant got the interpretation from a judge, a federal or a state official. Statements provided by attorneys and private legal professionals do not qualify.

When can Mistake of Fact or Mistake of Law Defense Strategies be Used?

The answer to this question depends on the nature of the criminal charge. A criminal defense attorney will examine the circumstances and the evidence to determine whether either strategy will be applicable.

mistake of factMistake of the lack of knowledge of a law is not a justifiable defense. Reliance on poor interpretation or legal provisions that have been overturned, however, could result in a good outcome for the defendant.

Mistake of fact defense scenarios will be applicable in a wider array of criminal proceedings. There should be an honest and reasonable mistake that will negate an element of the crime. Even if such a line defense does not lead to the complete dismissal of the charges, it can produce a minimal crime or another favorable outcome for the defendant in the presence of sufficient evidence.