The Mistake of Fact Defense

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The Mistake of Fact Defense

Many crimes require what is known as “mens rea.” The literal translation of mens rea is “guilty mind.” In the realm of criminal litigation, mens rea essentially refers to a person’s criminal intent. Many crimes require the state to prove a defendant’s criminal intent as part of the elements of the crime charged. So what happens when there is activity that could be considered criminal, but the defendant, for whatever reason, did not act with criminal intent?

Mistake of fact is a defense to crimes if the defendant believed incorrect facts and circumstances surrounding the criminal activity. Simply put, if the defendant is under a mistaken belief as to a fact that is required to make his or her conduct a crime, then the defendant is not guilty of that crime. In order for the mistake of fact defense to work, the defendant’s conduct must have otherwise been lawful.

To illustrate, consider this hypothetical:

Terry is the owner of Terry’s Sugar Shack. Terry’s Sugar Shack is the leading seller of sugar to residents of Martin County.  Terry buys her sugar from a supplier, and she has used this same supplier for twenty years. The supplier sends the sugar to Terry in 1-pound packages wrapped in brown butcher paper.  All of the packages are identical and haven’t changed since Terry’s Sugar Shack has been in business.

Unbeknownst to Terry, her sugar supplier has recently become involved in the drug trade and has begun selling 1-pound packages of cocaine. The cocaine is wrapped identically to the 1-pound packages of sugar.  To the naked eye, there is no difference between the 1-pound packages of cocaine and the 1-pound packages of sugar.

During Terry’s most recent purchase of sugar from her supplier, Terry is mistakenly sent 1,000 pounds of cocaine instead of 1,000 pounds of sugar.  Because all 1,000 pounds are wrapped in 1-pound packages, and all of the packages look exactly like the sugar that Terry has always sold, Terry starts unknowingly selling the cocaine instead of sugar.  After a few chaotic days in Martin County, a police investigation leads detectives to Terry’s Sugar Shack as the source of the unwanted cocaine. Terry is arrested and charged with dealing cocaine.

Should Terry be found guilty of dealing cocaine?

The answer, of course, is no.  Terry honestly believed that the product being sold from Terry’s Sugar Shack was only sugar. Terry had no reason to believe that the sugar was actually cocaine, because the cocaine came to her packaged as the sugar always had.  Terry had mistakenly sold the cocaine as sugar, and had no reason to think that anything she was doing was unlawful.  Terry never intended to sell cocaine, and therefore never had the requisite mens rea, or criminal intent, to commit a crime. Terry, therefore, cannot be guilty of dealing cocaine due to her mistake of fact.

If you or somebody you know has recently been charged with a crime, and there is an issue with criminal intent due to a mistake of fact, contact the experienced criminal defense attorneys at Banks & Brower, LLC.  We are available at all times by calling us at (317) 870-0019, or by emailing