Before you can be convicted of a crime in Texas, the state must be able to prove that you committed a criminal act with a certain intent and motive. What happens if you commit a crime by mistake and did not have the criminal intent required for that particular offense? In Texas, you can argue the defense of mistake of fact. When this argument is successful, you can avoid criminal responsibility for your otherwise illegal actions. Contact Houston criminal defense attorney Doug Murphy to find out how he can help you assert this defense.
Affirmative Defenses in Texas
Affirmative defenses can be incredibly helpful when you are facing criminal charges in Texas. When you argue a traditional defense, you deny wrongdoing and present evidence to support the fact that you are not guilty of a crime. When you argue an affirmative defense, you admit to engaging in behavior that is normally unlawful but explain that your actions were justified and/or excusable under the law. The affirmative defense allows you to escape the criminal penalties that would otherwise be imposed.
When you argue mistake of fact, you admit that the criminal action happened, but argue that you did not have the mens rea (or guilty mind) necessary to be guilty of the crime.
What is Mistake of Fact?
Mistake of fact is an affirmative defense. Rather than denying that you committed a crime, you argue that your actions are excusable because you were mistaken about an important fact relevant to the offense. This mistake makes it impossible for you to have had the required intent to commit a crime.
When can mistake of fact be successfully argued in a criminal matter? Texas Penal Code §8.02 explains that
it is a defense to prosecution that the actor through mistake formed a reasonable belief about a matter of fact if his mistaken belief negated the kind of culpability required for the commission of the offense.
In other words, mistake of fact exists when you held a mistaken belief that was reasonable. This reasonable mistake prevented you from having the criminal intent and state of mind that are required to be guilty of the criminal offense as defined by Texas law.
In order for the defense of mistake of fact to be successful, your mistaken belief about a fact must be reasonable. Whether or not your mistaken belief was reasonable will be a question of fact for the jury. The jury will consider any evidence, testimony, and arguments that are relevant to your case when making this important decision.
The bottom line is that your mistake must be reasonable and honest. The more evidence you have to support this assertion, the stronger your defense will be.
Negating Required Culpability
In order for the defense of mistake of fact to be successful, your mistaken belief must “negate the kind of culpability that is required for the commission of the offense.” Most crimes in Texas have two primary components: actus reus and mens rea. You cannot commit a crime unless you demonstrate both of these things.
Actus reus, or guilty act, is the physical behavior that constitutes a crime. If you're accused of robbery, the actus reus would be (1) committing a theft, (2) from the presence of another person, and (3) using force or fear. These are the physical acts required to commit the crime.
Mens rea, on the other hand, is the mental state you must have to commit a crime. This is what is important when you argue mistake of fact. Let's go back to robbery. The mens rea, or guilty mind, that is required is the intent to use force to deprive another person of their property. You cannot be culpable, or responsible for blame if you lack this criminal intent.
Mistake of fact, when argued successfully, proves that your reasonable mistake about a fact made it impossible for you to have the required mens rea. If you did not have the required mens rea, you cannot be guilty of the crime.
Examples of Mistake of Fact
The best way to understand mistake of fact is to see how it can be used in real-life situations. Here are some examples of using the defense of mistake of fact that may be helpful.
Example #1: You are walking around your neighborhood and see a tablet sitting on your neighbor's porch. You see a Texans sticker on the tablet and immediately believe that it is yours. Months ago, you placed that same sticker on your tablet, which has been missing for a few days. You believe that your neighbor has your property. You take the tablet from the neighbor's porch. Your neighbor calls the police and you are arrested for theft. As it turns out, your tablet was under your couch and the tablet you took was actually not yours. However, you argue that you honestly and mistakenly believed that the tablet was rightfully yours. This mistake of fact made it impossible for you to have the criminal intent necessary to commit the crime of theft.
Example #2: You invite a few friends over to take a look at your collection of firearms, including a new gun that you just purchased. You are well-known for being incredibly meticulous about keeping your guns unloaded so that accidents don't happen. One of your friends picks up the new gun, points it jokingly in the direction of another person, and pulls the trigger. Unfortunately, the gun was actually loaded at the time and the victim suffers a serious injury. Police arrive on the scene and arrest your friend for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Your friend explains that he honestly believed the gun was not loaded because (a) it was incredibly light and did not feel like it had ammunition and (b) you never keep your weapons loaded. If a jury finds that your friend's mistake was reasonable, he may not be found guilty of the crime.
Arguing Mistake of Fact in Texas
Have you been arrested for a crime in Texas? Did you lack the criminal motive required to commit that crime? If your crime was the result of an honest mistake of fact, you should not be held criminally responsible for your actions. Arguing an affirmative defense can be complicated. Hiring an attorney to handle your defense will allow you to secure the best possible outcome in your criminal case. Contact the Doug Murphy Law Firm, P.C. to schedule a free consultation and to find out how our Houston criminal defense attorneys can help you protect your future.