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Mistake of Law and Mens Rea

Case: Cheek v. United States, 498 U.S. 192 (1991) [p. 237-241]

Facts: Cheek charged with willfully failing to file federal income tax returns, and for willfully attempting to
evade his income tax. Cheek argued and sincerely believed that tax laws were unconstitutionally enforced and
his actions by not filing or paying were lawful. However, Cheek was well aware that courts had repeatedly
rejected claims of the unconstitutionality of imposing federal income taxes as frivolous. Cheek found guilty.

Holding:
o General rule - ignorance of the law or mistake of the law is no defense. However, some laws are
complex and difficult to comprehend, so Congress made specific intent to violate the law an element of
certain offenses. So the term willfully as used in criminal tax statutes generally means "an act done with
a bad purpose or with an evil motive." Willfulness requires the government to prove that the law
imposed a duty on the Δ, that Δ knew of the duty, and that Δ voluntarily and intentionally violated that
duty.
o Trial court jury instructions: "an honest but unreasonable belief is not a defense, and does not negate
willfulness"
• This Court says that it is impossible to be aware that the law imposes a duty if at the same time
you believe such a duty does not exist. So honest beliefs of the Δ don’t have to be objectively
reasonable, as long as it’s a good faith belief.
 However, Δ was aware he had to pay taxes - he had paid taxes in the past. Δ's argument
that tax laws are unconstitutional is not an innocent mistake which could be used as a
defense. Δ could have paid taxes, then challenged the constitutionality of tax laws in
court.
 However, Δ's beliefs that wages are not income and that he was not a taxpayer within the
meaning of the IRS code could be an innocent mistake (because he may not have been
aware there was a duty), and it is up to the jury to decide whether these beliefs are honest.
o Court remanded for further proceedings.

Class Notes

• Charged with willfully failing to file his tax returns. Δ claims that he believed that the constitution
forbids taxing my income, because he believed constitution forbade government from taxing him. This
argument fails - his disagreement with the law is not a basis. You can't ignore law because of what you
believe - you know you have to file tax return.
• Better claim would have been - Δ says I didn’t know I had to file a tax return. That would have been a
winning claim. Here, the government would have had to prove Δ knew about the law - why is this diff
from Baker?
o Because of the complexity of the tax laws. May be difficult to know what your duty is.
o Difference - this is a crime of omission. Only a crime when there is a duty. If he wasn’t aware of
the duty, then element of willfully failing to file is not met.