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New York’s Penal Law § 15.20


Defendant was a Federal corrections officer in Danbury, Connecticut, and asserted that status at the time of his arrest in 1977. He claimed at trial that there were various interpretations of fellow officers and teachers, as well as the peace officer statute itself, upon which he relied for his mistaken belief that he could carry a weapon with legal impunity.

On the trial of the case, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that his personal misunderstanding of the statutory definition of a peace officer is enough to excuse him from criminal liability under New York’s mistake of law statute. The court refused to charge the jury on this issue and defendant was convicted of criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree.

The central issue is whether defendant’s personal misreading or misunderstanding of a statute may excuse criminal conduct in the circumstances of this case.

The common-law rule on mistake of law was clearly articulated in Gardner v. People, 62 N.Y. 299. In Gardner, the defendants misread a statute and mistakenly believed that their conduct was legal. The court insisted, however, that the “mistake of law” did not relieve the defendants of criminal liability. The statute at issue, relating to the removal of election officers, required that prior to removal, written notice must be given to the officer sought to be removed. The statute provided one exception to the notice requirement: “removal * * * shall only be made after notice in writing * * * unless made while the inspector is actually on duty on a day of registration, revision of registration, or election, and for improper conduct” (L.1872, ch. 675, § 13). The defendants construed the statute to mean that an election officer could be removed without notice for improper conduct at any time. The court ruled that removal without notice could only occur for improper conduct on a day of registration, revision of registration or election.

The desirability of the Gardner-type outcome, which was to encourage the societal benefit of individuals’ knowledge of and respect for the law, is underscored by Justice Holmes’ statement: “It is no doubt true that there are many cases in which the criminal could not have known that he was breaking the law, but to admit the excuse at all would be to encourage ignorance where the law-maker has determined to make men know and obey, and justice to the individual is rightly outweighed by the larger interests on the other side of the scales”

The revisers of New York’s Penal Law intended no fundamental departure from this common-law rule in Penal Law § 15.20, which provides in pertinent part: § 15.20. Effect of ignorance or mistake upon liability.

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“2. A person is not relieved of criminal liability for conduct because he engages in such conduct under a mistaken belief that it does not, as a matter of law, constitute an offense, unless such mistaken belief is founded upon an official statement of the law contained in (a) a statute or other enactment * * * (d) an interpretation of the statute or law relating to the offense, officially made or issued by a public servant, agency, or body legally charged or empowered with the responsibility or privilege of administering, enforcing or interpreting such statute or law.”

The defendant claims as a first prong of his defense that he is entitled to raise the defense of mistake of law under section 15.20(2)(a) because his mistaken belief that his conduct was legal was founded upon an official statement of the law contained in the statute itself. Defendant argues that his mistaken interpretation of the statute was reasonable in view of the alleged ambiguous wording of the peace officer exemption statute, and that his “reasonable” interpretation of an “official statement” is enough to satisfy the requirements of subdivision (2)(a).

However, the whole thrust of this exceptional exculpatory concept, in derogation of the traditional and common-law principle, was intended to be a very narrow escape valve. Application in this case would invert that thrust and make mistake of law a generally applied or available defense instead of an unusual exception which the very opening words of the mistake statute make so clear.

The prosecution further counters defendant’s argument by asserting that one cannot claim the protection of mistake of law under section 15.20(2)(a) simply by misconstruing the meaning of a statute but must instead establish that the statute relied on actually permitted the conduct in question and was only later found to be erroneous.

Section 2.04 of the MPC provides:

Ignorance or Mistake.

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“(3) A belief that conduct does not legally constitute an offense is a defense to a prosecution for that offense based upon such conduct when * * * (b) he acts in reasonable reliance upon an official statement of the law, afterward determined to be invalid or erroneous, contained in (i) a statute or other enactment” (emphasis added).

It was early recognized that the “official statement” mistake of law defense was a statutory protection against prosecution based on reliance of a statute that did in fact authorize certain conduct. “It seems obvious that society must rely on some statement of the law, and that conduct which is in fact ‘authorized’ * * * should not be subsequently condemned. The threat of punishment under these circumstances can have no deterrent effect unless the actor doubts the validity of the official pronouncement, a questioning of authority that is itself undesirable “(Note, Proposed Penal Law of New York, 64 Colum.L.Rev. 1469, 1486 [emphasis added]). While providing a narrow escape hatch, the idea was simultaneously to encourage the public to read and rely on official statements of the law, not to have individuals conveniently and personally question the validity and interpretation of the law and act on that basis. If later the statute was invalidated, one who mistakenly acted in reliance on the authorizing statute would be relieved of criminal liability. That makes sense and is fair. To go further does not make sense and would create a legal chaos based on individual selectivity.

In the case before us, the underlying statute never in fact authorized the defendant’s conduct; the defendant only thought that the statutory exemptions permitted his conduct when, in fact, the primary statute clearly forbade his conduct. Moreover, by adjudication of the final court to speak on the subject in this very case, it turned out that even the exemption statute did not permit this defendant to possess the weapon. It would be ironic at best and an odd perversion at worst for this court now to declare that the same defendant is nevertheless free of criminal responsibility.

A statute which is so indefinite that it either forbids or requires the doing of an act in terms so vague that men of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its application, violates the first essential of due process of law and is unconstitutional. If the court feels that a statute is sufficiently definite to meet this test, it is hard to see why a defense of mistake of law is needed. Such a statute could hardly mislead the defendant into believing that his acts were not criminal, if they do in fact come under its ban. If the defense of mistake of law based on indefiniteness is raised, the court is going to require proof that the act was sufficiently definite to guide the conduct of reasonable men.

In the above case where the criminal liability of an accused is majority based on the correct interpretation of the law for its ambiguity as to warrant the defense of mistake of law, an expert New York Criminal Lawyers is necessary.

The Stephen Bilkis & Associates together with its New York Criminal Attorneys can assist you with your mistake of law defense. For preliminary considerations of your case you can call us for free legal advice.

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