Every person who shall feloniously steal the personal property of another is guilty of theft.”
-Common law definition of larceny: “the tresspassory taking and carrying away of the personal property of another with the intent to steal the property.”
-Def. was charged with stealing four wooden beams from a construction site.
-Def. believed either:
1) beams abandoned as worthless, owner had no objection to his taking of them.
2) beams had substantial value, had not been abandoned, no right to take them.
Whether the Def. should be acquitted if there is a reasonable doubt that he had a good faith belief that the property had been abandoned | or that he had the permission of the owner to take the property | or whether that belief must be a reasonable one as well as being held in good faith.
Theft = specific intent crime.
Jury could have concluded:
-Where the law requires a specific criminal intent, it is not enough merely to prove that a reasonable man would have had that intent, without meeting the burden of proof that the Def. himself also entertained it.
-”If no specific intent or other special mental element is required for guilt of the offense charged, a mistake of fact will not be recognized as an excuse unless it was based upon reasonable grounds.
-An honest mistake of fact or law is a defense when it negates a required mental element of the crime.
[A]If the Def. by a mistake of either fact or law did not know the goods were stolen, even though the circumstances would have led a prudent man to believe they were stolen, he does not have the required mental state and thus may not be convicted of the crime.
-Trial court erred on Jury instructions.
-Specific intent required to be proved as an element of the offense had not been established.
Specific Intent: Used to denote an offense that contains in its definition the mens rea element of “intent” or perhaps “knowledge. (Intent expressly set out in the definition of the crime).
General Intent: Reserved for crimes that permit conviction on the basis of a less culpable mental state, such as “recklessness” or “negligence.” (no particular mental state expressly set out in the crime’s definition.)
Mistakes of Fact
The actor has caused the proscribed social harm.
Actor mistaken | unaware of, a fact pertaining to an element of the offense for which he might be prosecuted (stealing).
“An actor who is mistaken about some fact ‘does not have the same kind of opportunity to avoid doing evil that he would have if he knew that he was doing.’”
-Actor’s freedom of choice, the moral basis for punishing him, is undermined.
(Either the actor had the mens rea required to be guilty of the crime or he did not.)
-Once a Def. produces some evidence that he was mistaken, the prosecutor must prove (beyond a reasonable doubt) that the Def. was not mistaken, or that the Def.’s mistake did not negate the mens rea.
Re: Strict-Liability Offenses.
Under no circumstances does a person’s mistake of fact negate his criminal responsibility for violating a strict-liability offense.
-By definition, a strict-liability offense is one that does not require proof of any mens rea | The absence of any mens rea to negate necessarily precludes the use of this defense.
(Statutory Rape: Def.’s erroneous belief, no matter how reasonable, that the female whom he is having intercourse is old enough to consent, will not exculpate him.
Re: Specific-Intent Offenses
-A Def. is not guilty of an offense if his mistake of fact negates the specific-intent portion of the crime | i.e. If he lacks the intent required in the definition of the offense.
-It does not matter that the Def.’s mistakes in these cases may have been entirely unreasonable--reckless or negligent-- under the circumstances.
-Acquittal follows inextricably from the fact that a person may not be convicted of an offense unless every element thereof, including the mental-state element, is proved.
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