|A mistake of law is generally not a defense to a criminal offense. A mistake of law means that a defendant was ignorant of the provisions of the law regarding the offense. The fact that the defendant did not know the law is therefore not a defense.
A defendant may be entitled to a defense in a criminal prosecution based on a mistake of law if the defendant relied on proper authority, which proper authority caused the defendant to form a reasonable belief that his or her conduct did not constitute a crime. Proper authority means an official statement of law that is found in a written order. It may also mean permission that is granted by an administrative agency that is charged with the responsibility for interpreting a particular law. Proper authority may further include a written interpretation of the law in a court opinion or a written interpretation of the law by a public official who is charged with the responsibility for interpreting the law.
The defense of mistake of law is an affirmative defense. This means that a defendant must raise the defense and must prove the defense by a preponderance of the evidence.
Raising the Defense
In order to raise the defense of mistake of law, a defendant must show that he or she reasonably believed that his or her conduct was not a crime and that he or she reasonably relied on an administrative order or a written interpretation of the law. If the defendant relies on an invalid law, the defendant's reliance on the law may not be reasonable. Also, the defendant cannot rely on an oral representation regarding the law. The defendant may only rely on a written interpretation of the law.
Although a defendant may be entitled to the defense of mistake of law, the defendant may still be found guilty of a lesser-included offense. If the defendant committed the lesser-included offense in the mistaken belief that the lesser-included offense was the law, the defendant may be prosecuted for the lesser-included offense.
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