Mistake of Fact
Is “I made a mistake” a defense to a criminal charge? As always with legal questions: it depends. If the definition of a crime requires you to think a certain way or believe certain facts, an honest mistake can sometimes serve as a defense.
Let’s use the crime of theft as an example. Minnesota Statute 609.52 criminalizes various types of theft. One of the most common types is laid out in Subdivision 2(a)(1): whoever “intentionally and without claim of right takes, uses, transfers, conceals, or retains possession of movable property of another without the other’s consent and with intent to deprive the owner permanently of possession of the property” has committed a theft.
Let’s say I find my daughter’s bike laying in my neighbor’s yard. I pick up the bike to return it to my daughter. My neighbor sees me and shouts, “Stop, thief!” Whoops. It turns out my neighbor’s daughter has the same model and color bicycle. I would then raise a mistake of fact defense. Remember: the definition above requires that I intentionally take property belonging to someone else. Because I genuinely believed that the property was mine, an essential part of the crime is missing.
On the other hand, if I took the bike from my neighbor’s yard knowing that my daughter’s bike was already safely in my garage, I could not use a mistake of fact defense.
If you are facing a criminal charge, consult with an attorney to determine what defenses may be available to you.