Brief Fact Summary. The Defendant Cheek was charged with several Internal Revenue Code violations for failing to file tax returns. He argued that he had a good-faith belief that the tax system was unconstitutional.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. A good faith, although unreasonable, mistake of law is a defense to criminal liability.
Congress did not intend that a person, by reason of a bona fide misunderstanding as to his liability for the tax, as to his duty to make a return, or as to the adequacy of the records he maintained, should become a criminal by his mere failure to measure up to the prescribed standard of conduct.View Full Point of Law
Issue. Can an unreasonable, good-faith mistake of law negate the statutory willfulness requirement?
Held. Yes. Conviction affirmed.
Willfulness requires the government to prove that the law imposed a duty, that the defendant knew of the duty, and that he voluntarily and intentionally violated the duty.
Under this definition of willfulness, it is clear that the Defendant cannot be convicted of willfully violating the law if he was not aware of the law. Hence, since a jury must decide whether the Defendant was aware of the law, it must be able to credit or discount a good-faith misunderstanding of the law, regardless of reasonableness.
Despite this holding, the United State Supreme Court upheld the conviction on the ground that the defendant’s view about the validity of the tax laws are irrelevant to the issue of willfulness.
Dissent. It is incomprehensible that anyone could possibly believe that his wages are not income. The majority opinion may encourage taxpayers to try to convince a jury that the tax system is unconstitutional.
Discussion. Mistake of law, even if unreasonable, is a defense to criminal liabil