Mistakes Can Still Be Punished as Crimes

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Hands and breaking handcuffsIn a rather bizarre and tragic case of mistaken identity, a 41-year-old South Carolina woman was recently sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of the offense of soliciting a minor to commit a felony and accessory before the fact to murder. The woman wanted to cash in on her husband’s $500,000 life insurance policy and offered her teenage lover $13,000 out of those proceeds if he killed her husband. The teen, however, mistook the woman’s brother-in-law for her husband and shot and killed the woman’s brother-in-law instead.

Mistakes of Law and Mistakes of Fact

A criminal defendant can attempt to escape responsibility for a criminal act by claiming that he or she made a mistake of law or a mistake of fact. However, not all mistakes will result in an acquittal or a dismissal of criminal charges. Instead, a mistake of fact is a defense only when provided by statute or when the mistake negates a material element of the offense (like knowledge, purpose, or negligence). This is why, for example, the woman was convicted of being an accessory before the fact to murder. Even though the wrong person was murdered, she still had the intent and knowledge necessary for the crime.

A mistake of law provides a defense where either: (1) the defendant did not know of the law and did not have a reasonable opportunity to make him- or herself aware of the law; or (2) the defendant acts in reasonable reliance on an official statement of law that later turns out to be false. For example, suppose a new law is enacted but it is difficult to understand. You ask a relative (who just so happens to be a South Carolina judge) to help you understand the law. Relying on that interpretation, you conduct yourself accordingly. If you are later arrested and charged with violating the law, you may be able to defend yourself by claiming you relied on your relative’s – the judge’s – interpretation.

Proving a Mistake of Fact or Mistake of Law

Make no mistake (no pun intended) – it is usually not enough for you to simply claim you were mistaken as to the law or certain facts. Your mistaken beliefs or understandings must usually be supported by some objective evidence. For example, in the case of your relative who provided the erroneous interpretation, your relative will most likely need to appear and confirm that he or she did provide you with an erroneous interpretation.
This is why it is so important to have a South Carolina criminal defense attorney like the attorneys at David R. Price, Jr., P.A., review your case. They can identify whether a defense like mistake of law or mistake of fact is applicable in your case and, if so, they are able to present your defense through appropriate witnesses and evidence. Contact their office today at (864) 271-2636 to schedule your free initial consultation and discuss defenses available to your criminal charges.


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