California Criminal Jury Instructions (CALCRIM) (2017)

3411. Mistake of Law As a Defense

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3411.Mistake of Law As a Defense
[I have already explained that it is not a defense to the crime[s] of
<insert crime[s]> that the defendant did not know (he/she)
was breaking the law or that (he/she) believed (his/her) act was lawful.
But when you consider the crime[s] of <insert crime[s]>, a
different rule applies.]
<insert crime[s]> require[s] that a defendant act with a
specific (intent/ [and/or] mental state). The act and the specific (intent/
[and/or] mental state) required are explained in the instruction for
(that/those) crime[s].
The defendant is not guilty of <insert crime[s]> if (he/she)
made an honest or good faith mistake about the law, if that mistake
shows that (he/she) did not have the specific (intent/ [and/or] mental
state) required for the crime[s] of <insert crime[s]>.
If you have a reasonable doubt about whether the defendant had the
specific (intent/ [and/or] mental state) required for <insert
crime[s]>, you must find (him/her) not guilty of (that/those) crime[s].
New August 2013
Instructional Duty
The court has a sua sponte duty to give this instruction if a defendant charged with
a specific intent crime is appropriately relying on this defense or there is substantial
evidence that a defendant’s good faith mistake of law provides a valid defense to a
specific intent crime and the defense is not inconsistent with the defendant’s theory
of the case. (People v. Urziceanu (2005) 132 Cal.App.4th 747, 774–780 [33
Cal.Rptr.3d 859]).
Many defendants seek to rely on the defense of mistake of law, but few are
successful, because it is limited to crimes in which a specific intent or mental state
is negated by the mistake. (People v. Cole (2007) 156 Cal.App.4th 452, 483–484
[67 Cal.Rptr.3d 526] [no error in instructing jury that mistake of law is no defense
when defendant was charged with a general intent crime]; People v. Vineberg
(1981) 125 Cal.App.3d 127, 137 [177 Cal.Rptr. 819] [defendants’ belief that they
had a legal right to use clients’ gold reserves to buy future contracts could be a
defense if held in good faith]; People v. Stewart (1976) 16 Cal.3d 133, 140 [127
Cal.Rptr. 117, 544 P.2d 1317] [defendant’s good faith belief that he was legally
authorized to use property could be defense to embezzlement]; People v. Flora
(1991) 228 Cal.App.3d 662, 669–670 [279 Cal.Rptr. 17] [defendant’s belief, if held
in good faith, that out-of-state custody order was not enforceable in California
could have been basis for defense to violating a child custody order]).
Although concerned with knowledge of the law, a mistake about legal status or
rights is a mistake of fact, not a mistake of law. (See CALCRIM No. 3406,
Mistake of Fact.) If the defendant is charged with a general intent crime and raises
a mistake of law defense, give instead CALCRIM No. 3407, Defenses: Mistake of
Law. If both general and specific intent crimes are charged, use the bracketed first
paragraph of this instruction as necessary.
• Instructional Requirements. People v. Cole (2007) 156 Cal.App.4th 452,
483–484 [67 Cal.Rptr.3d 526]; People v. Bernhardt (1963) 222 Cal.App.2d 567,
585–587, 592 [35 Cal.Rptr. 401].
Secondary Sources
1 Witkin & Epstein, California Criminal Law (4th ed. 2012) Defenses, §§ 44–45.
Good Faith Reliance on Statute or Regulation
Good faith reliance on a facially valid statute or administrative regulation (which
turns out to be void) may be considered an excusable mistake of law. Additionally,
a good faith mistake-of-law defense may be established by special statute. (See 1
Witkin & Epstein, California Criminal Law (4th ed. 2012) Defenses, § 46.)