Mistake of fact can negate an element of a crime

People v. Speck (Cal. Ct. App., Feb. 2, 2022, No. C093273) 2022 WL 304910

Summary: A jury found Speck guilty of felony vehicle theft (Veh. Code, § 10851, subd. (a)) and receiving stolen property (Pen. Code, § 496d) with special allegations that the Honda was valued at over $950. The jury found defendant guilty as charged of both counts and the value allegations. The trial court sentenced him to the upper terms of three years in “county prison” for unlawfully driving a vehicle and three years for receiving stolen property, with sentence on the latter count stayed pursuant to section 654. Speck  appealed claiming that the trial court prejudicially erred in failing to instruct the jury on mistake of fact. (CALCRIM No. 3406.)

The Court of appeal agreed and reversed the judgment.

.Jury Instructions on Mistake of Fact

Defense counsel requested the trial court instruct the jury with CALCRIM No. 3406 regarding mistake of fact based on Speck’s testimony that he mistakenly but actually believed he had permission from the person he believed was the owner to drive the car, which he mistakenly but actually believed was not stolen.

CALCRIM No. 3406, Mistake of Fact, provides: “The defendant is not guilty of <insert crime[s]> if (he/she) did not have the intent or mental state required to commit the crime because (he/she) [reasonably] did not know a fact or [reasonably and] mistakenly believed a fact.

“If the defendant’s conduct would have been lawful under the facts as (he/she) [reasonably] believed them to be, (he/she) did not commit <insert crime[s]>. If you find that the defendant believed that <insert alleged mistaken facts> [and if you find that belief was reasonable], (he/she) did not have the specific intent or mental state required for <insert crime[s]>.

“If you have a reasonable doubt about whether the defendant had the specific intent or mental state required for <insert crime[s]>, you must find (him/her) not guilty of (that crime/those crimes).”

The Bench Notes to CALCRIM No. 3406 as well as relevant case law make clear that the bracketed language requiring that the lack of knowledge or mistaken belief be reasonable is not applicable to crimes requiring specific criminal intent, such as the two charges against Speck.

Instruction on Mistake of fact should be given when requested

A mistake of fact that disproves the required intent for a crime is a defense to criminal liability. (In re Jennings (2004) 34 Cal.4th 254, 276, 17 Cal.Rptr.3d 645, 95 P.3d 906.) Generally, “a mistake of fact defense is not available unless the mistake disproves an element of the offense.” (Id. at p. 277, 17 Cal.Rptr.3d 645, 95 P.3d 906.) A mistake of fact instruction is only appropriate where the defendant’s mistaken belief negates an element of the crime. (People v. Givan (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 335, 345, 182 Cal.Rptr.3d 592.) The trial court does not have a sua sponte duty to give a mistake of fact instruction. (People v. Lawson (2013) 215 Cal.App.4th 108, 117-118, 155 Cal.Rptr.3d 236.) When  requested and when the   defendant presents substantial evidence on mistake of fact and the instruction is legally correct, the  court is  required to give such an instruction. (Anderson, at pp. 996-997, 125 Cal.Rptr.3d 408, 252 P.3d 968.) Whether the offense is a general or specific intent crime, “the defendant’s mistaken belief must relate to a set of circumstances which, if existent or true, would make the act charged an innocent act.” (Lawson, at p. 115, 155 Cal.Rptr.3d 236.)

Speck claimed mistake of fact because  that he thought Rakellah-the person from whom he obtained the car-was the Honda’s owner. Because he though had taken the car with permission of the owner, whether he possessed the requisite intent (to permanently deprive the actual owner) would be irrelevant. If Speck mistakenly thought Rakellah was the owner, there is no way he would know the car was stolen under the facts as presented at trial, because he had received the car from Rakellah himself, the rightful owner according to his  mistaken belief. If credited, defendant’s claim of mistake as to the Honda’s owner–that it was Rakellah–would have negated the intent and knowledge requirements of both offenses, and made the acts underlying the charged conduct, even if proven in all respects, innocent acts. Speck was entitled to receive the benefit of the pinpoint jury instruction outlining the mistake of fact defense, CALCRIM No. 3406.

The trial court found there was substantial evidence to support the instruction.

Speck’s  claimed mistakes of fact were that he thought he had lawfully borrowed the car from Rakellah and that he did not know it was stolen. The jury was not instructed that Spexk’s mistake as to Rakellah’s ownership of the car and his lack of knowledge that the car was stolen, even if unreasonable, negated the necessary intent as to both offenses. This intent was the primary issue in dispute as to both charges. The failure to give the instruction was not harmless.

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