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Mistake of Fact Defense

MISTAKE OF FACT DEFENSES--YOUR LAWYER NEEDS TO KNOW ABOUT THIS CASE

Defendant Lawson went into a Walmart.  He took a hoodie off of a hanger and slung it over his shoulder.  He bought some other items and walked out of the store, not having paid for the hoodie.  Defendant was convicted after trial of theft.

On appeal, the defense argued that the judge had an automatic duty, without defense request, to instruct the jury on a mistake of fact defense, based on the reasonable inference that the defendant just forgot to pay for the hoodie.   In rejecting this claim, the court stated that a mistake of fact defense exists only where a defendant has a mistaken belief which, if true, would make the act innocent.  By way of example, the court envisioned a person who takes a motorcycle next to a trash bin, thinking it was abandoned.  The court stated that even if the defendant forgot about the hoodie, that mistake would not qualify as a mistake of fact because forgetting isn't a mistaken belief in circumstances which, if true, would make walking out of the store a lawful act. 

The court stated that even if the mistake of fact defense DID IN FACT apply, the court did not have an automatic duty, on its own, to instruct the jury on this defense.  Instructing the jury means that the Judge reads to the jurors before deliberations the law that the jury must apply to the case.  The defense has the duty to submit to the court any applicable instructions favorable to the defense. 

The court stated, importantly, that there is only a duty to instruct if defense counsel requests the instruction.  There are often borderline situations where a court may give the defense an instruction--but the defense has to ask!

    People v. Lawson; 2013 DJ DAR 4448; DJ, 4/8/13; C/A 4th, Div. 2

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