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Cheek v. United States

    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.

    Facts. The Defendant, an airline pilot, ceased to file tax returns. He claimed an increasing number of withholding allowances and indicated on his W-4 that he was exempt from withholding. In 1983, he attempted unsuccessfully to have the entire amount withheld by his employer refunded to him. The Defendant was eventually charged with six counts of willfully failing to file a tax return and three counts of willfully evading income taxes. At trial, the Defendant testified that he followed the advice of speakers at seminars that the tax system is unconstitutional. Some of the speakers were attorneys who purported to give opinions about the invalidity of the federal income tax laws. The Defendant claimed that he sincerely believed that tax laws were being unconstitutionally enforced, and his actions were therefore lawful. Hence, he argued that he did not willfully fail to file or evade taxes. The District Court informed the jury that an honest but unreasonable belief is not a defense and
    does not negate willfulness. The jury convicted the Defendant, and he appealed.

    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


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