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Hammer O'Justice
Hammer O'Justice, Attorney
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Experience:  Almost 12 years of legal experience
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How can ignorance of facts and law create a reasonable doubt

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How can ignorance of facts and law create a reasonable doubt that the prosecution has proved the element of criminal intent? How does this relate to mens rea? In what situations might ignorance not be important?

Mistake of fact and/or law can negate intent, because the mistake means the person does not have the proper mens rea to commit a crime. For example, if Steve takes Mark's cell phone from a bar believing it is his because it is the same color and model as his, and he is charged with the crime of theft, he can use mistake of fact as a defense. Theft requires an intent to permanently deprive an individual of their property. Because Steve was mistaken about a fact relevant to the crime (i.e. that the phone was his), he should not be convicted because he did not have the appropriate mens rea ("guilty mind") or intent. Mistake of fact defenses are much more common than mistake of law defenses because one is presumed to know the laws and conform his or her behavior to them.

However, there are circumstances under which mistake of fact or law are not available defenses. These are primarily unavailable as defenses to strict liability crimes, because with a strict liability crime, the prosecution does not have to prove intent or mens rea. Rather, the mere fact that the criminal act occurred is enough to convict a person of the crime. For example, mistake of fact is not available in most jurisdictions to the crime of statutory rape. Often, defendants in these cases argue that they believed the victim was over the age of majority, either because they assumed wrongly the person's age or the victim actively lied about his/her age. However, because it is a strict liability offense, the fact that the person did not intend to have sexual relations with a minor is not a defense because the statute does not require proof of intent.

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