Brief Fact Summary. Defendant Cheek was convicted under a provision of the Federal Tax Code that makes it a felony to “willfully attempt in any manner to evade or defeat any tax imposed by this title or payment thereof” for failing to file a tax return. Defendant argued that he had acted on information he received from a group opposing the institution of taxation and based on this information he believed that he did not owe any taxes.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. A good faith misunderstanding of the law or a good faith belief that one is not violating the law does not have to be reasonable to negate the element of willfulness.
Issue. Can a mistake based on an honest but unreasonable belief negate the element of willfulness?
Held. Yes. Judgment reversed and remanded.
The general rule is that mistake of law is not a viable defense to a criminal prosecution. However, the statutes of tax law sometime make it difficult for the average citizen to know the extent of his/her duties under tax law. Therefore specific intent to violate the law is an element of certain Federal criminal tax offenses. The term “willfully” carves out an exception to the traditional rule that mistake of law is not a defense.
The Government, with regard to willfulness in violating tax law, has to prove that the law imposed a duty on the defendant, that the defendant knew of this duty and that the defendant voluntarily and intentionally violated that duty.
A good faith misunderstanding of the law or a good faith belief that one is not violating the law does not have to be reasonable to negate willfulness.
Discussion. Ordinarily a mistake about the prohibition is not a defense, however where the prosecution must prove that a duty was intentionally violated, a mistake as to the existence of the prohibition negates that intent. The terms willfully and knowingly raise questions as to whether their use requires the defendant to be aware of the existence of the law he is charged with violating or just aware that he/she willfully or knowingly acted, regardless of whether he knew the actions were illegal.