Citation. 69 N.Y.2d 382, 515 N.Y.S.2d 212, 507 N.E.2d 1068 (1987)
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Brief Fact Summary.
The Defendant Marrero was charged with possession of an unlicensed loaded .38 caliber automatic pistol. As a guard at a federal prison, Defendant thought that he did not need to have the gun licensed.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
Mistake of law is not a defense, except to specific intent crimes.
The Defendant was a guard at a federal prison in Connecticut. He was arrested in New York for possessing an unlicensed, loaded .38 caliber automatic pistol. Under New York Penal Law, peace officers were exempt from criminal liability under the firearm possession statute. The Defendant mistakenly believed that he qualified as a peace officer.
Is a mistake in the interpretation of a law a defense to criminal liability?
A misreading or misunderstanding of the criminal offense is generally not a defense to criminal charges. However, in the case of a specific intent crime, ignorance of the law is a defense since one cannot intend to commit a crime if one did not know it was a crime.
Here, the firearms possession statute is a strict liability offense, meaning that an accused is guilty of the offense if he possesses a weapon regardless of his intent to do so. Therefore, the defendant cannot cite ignorance as a defense to the crime.
Under the view that the criminal justice system punishes blameworthiness, one who does not intend to break the law should not be punished. Society has no need to exact retribution on someone who accidentally breaks the law, nor does a man not intending to break the law need to be deterred from future unlawful conduct.
Ignorance of the law is no defense.