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Mistake of Law and Mens Rea

Case: People v. Bray, 52 Ca. App. 3d 124 (1975) [p. 231-233]

Δ convicted for being an accessory after the fact in Kansas and was given 2 years probation. After probation
was completed, he moved to CA. However, Δ was not sure whether his previous conviction constituted a felony,
and thought that it wasn’t. Δ bought a gun, and stated that he had no felony convictions. Investigators from
district attorney's office conducted a search with a warrant and Δ voluntarily lead them to the firearms he
possessed. He was convicted of being a felon in possession of a concealable firearm. Δ argues on appeal that
jury instructions were bad, because they did not address his mistake as to whether or not he was a felon (this is
not what Δ asked for in instruction - see below for correction).

The Court reversed the decision. Although ignorance of the law is no excuse, if there are lack of knowledge of
the facts necessary for criminal intent, this may exculpate the Δ. Also, Kansas district attorney was not able to
distinguish whether the crime was a felony or misdemeanor, so how could the Δ be expected to know. Without
knowledge that he was a felon, the Δ would be ignorant of the facts necessary for him to have the criminal

• He's negligent - he was convicted, and he should have known he was a felon
• He's reckless - he knows there's a real risk that he's a felon, but he doesn’t know he is, he thinks it was a
• To determine what mental state is required, must interpret the statute:
• Court requires the knowing mental states
• So jury should be instructed: "that the Δ knew he was a felon, and knew he was carrying
the firearm"
• Δ had asked for ignorance of fact instruction: (pg 231) - ignorance or mistake of fact
• Says it has to be a reasonable belief that he was not a felon - this is not reasonable (bad
lawyering asking for this jury instruction).
• Technically, Δ was mistaken as to the law - of his legal status though.
• But appellate court held that they need to prove knowledge.
• An honest belief, however unreasonable, negates knowledge.
• Court is departing from CL presumption that citizens know the law
• At CL, there was a distinction as to claims of mistake of fact and of law.
• Court doesn’t presume that he knows the law. Why?
• It's a due process problem. Up to government to prove every element. Must prove knowledge of
the law, and a mistake of law exonerates.
• § 2.04 - Ignorance or mistake
• Ignorance or mistake as to a matter of fact or law (doesn’t distinguish)
• Important: that the ignorance/mistake negates the mental state
• No longer a defense. Something government has to prove.
• He made a mistake as to Kansas law - another law that happened to be relevant to the law under which
he was being prosecuted.