CALCRIM No. 3411. Mistake of Law As a Defense

Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (2023 edition)

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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; Revised October 2021
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. Koenig (2020) 58 Cal.App.5th 771, 809 [272
Cal.Rptr.3d 732] [instruction appropriate where defendant relied on advice of
counsel to establish mistake of law related to omission of material fact in sale of
security]; 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].
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.)
1 Witkin & Epstein, California Criminal Law (4th ed. 2012) Defenses, §§ 44-45.

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