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Cal. Penal Code § 26 provides that a person is incapable of committing a crime if he acted under a "mistake of fact" which disproves criminal intent. In this regard, there is a distinction between mistakes of fact and mistakes of law. Ignorance of a law is no excuse for a violation thereof. Lack of actual knowledge of the provisions of a California Penal Code section is irrelevant; the crucial question is whether a defendant was aware that he was engaging in the conduct proscribed by that section.
Defendant Neva B. Snyder was charged with possession of a concealable firearm by a convicted felon (Pen. Code, § 12021), based on a prior felony conviction for the sale of marijuana. At trial, defendant offered to prove that her attorney in the marijuana charge advised her that she was pleading guilty to a misdemeanor and, therefore, was under a mistake of fact regarding her legal status. The trial court refused to admit any evidence of defendant's mistaken belief that her prior conviction was only a misdemeanor and defendant was convicted as charged. On appeal, defendant contended that the trial court erred in excluding evidence of her mistaken belief that her prior conviction was only a misdemeanor.
Did the defendant’s asserted mistake regarding her legal status as a convicted felon constitute a defense to the firearm possession charge?
The court held that Cal. Penal Code § 26 provided that a person was incapable of committing a crime if she acted under a "mistake of fact" which disproved criminal intent. The court held that defendant was presumed to know that it was unlawful for a convicted felon to possess a concealable firearm and that defendant was also charged with the knowledge that the offense of which she had been previously convicted was, as a matter of law, a felony. The court held that defendant's asserted mistake regarding her correct legal status was a mistake of law, not fact, and did not constitute a defense to Cal. Penal Code § 12021. Therefore, the court affirmed defendant's conviction.