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Is Ignorance of the Law a Valid Defense?

In Texas – and the rest of the United States, for that matter – ignorance of the law is not a valid defense to criminal accusations. Chapter 8 of the Texas Penal Code describes what can or can’t be used as a defense against criminal responsibility. It explicitly excludes “mistake of law” as a defense, stating that “It is no defense to prosecution that the actor was ignorant of the provisions of any law after the law has taken effect.”

This means someone can be charged, prosecuted, and convicted for committing a crime even if they were not aware that their actions were criminal. There are rare exceptions to this rule, but these only apply under very limited circumstances.

Specifically, a mistake of law can be used as a defense when someone believed their conduct would be lawful because of:

  • An official statement of the law from a written order or grant of permission by an administrative agency responsible for interpreting the law in question
  • A written interpretation of the law in a court opinion or may by a public official charged with interpreting the law

Barring these narrow exceptions, you can face serious criminal penalties if you engage in conduct without knowing whether or not that conduct is legal.

Mistake of Fact Defense in Texas

Unlike a mistake of law, a mistake of fact is a valid defense to criminal charges in Texas. A mistake of fact is when a criminal defendant has a reasonable misunderstanding that negates an element of the crime.

As an affirmative defense, a mistake of fact doesn’t deny that someone engaged in unlawful behavior; rather, it argues that they did so based on a reasonable mistake of fact relevant to the offense.

For example, a mistake of fact defense can be used in a situation where someone is shot by someone else holding a gun who didn’t reasonably believe the gun was loaded. Other criminal charges involving negligence might apply to a situation like this, but perhaps not murder. This would be because their reasonable belief that the gun was unloaded would negate elements of intent for murder.

Mistake of Law vs. Mistake of Fact

At a glance, the mistake of law and mistake of face defenses can seem confusingly similar. Both are affirmative defenses that don’t deny criminal wrongdoing, but both also argue that the defendant didn’t know something important that would make their actions criminal.

The difference is, in part, that Texas puts the onus on its citizens to understand the legality of their actions from the outset. In other words, you should know if you’re engaging in criminal behavior – ignorance is not an excuse. But it’s not ignorance if someone commits a criminal act due to a reasonable belief that their actions were legal or that they were unaware of an important fact that negates their culpability for a crime.

Contact Us for Criminal Defense Services

If you are charged with a crime in Texas, it’s essential to seek experienced and competent legal counsel. Alband, Lane & Balderrama can apply the right defense to your situation to help you protect your rights and ensure you are fairly treated by the legal system.

Learn more about our legal services during an initial consultation. Contact us today to get started!

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