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Mistake as to the legality of an unlawful search may sometimes be an excuse.
Following the publication of “Pentagon Papers,” a decision was made to establish a unit within the White House to investigate leaks of classified information. A unit composed of Egil Krogh, David Young, G. Gordon Liddy, and E. Howard Hunt were instructed to obtain all possible information on Daniel Ellsberg, the source of the Pentagon Papers leak. After Ellsberg's psychiatrist, Dr. Fielding, refused to be interviewed by FBI agents, the unit decided to obtain copies of Ellsberg's medical records through a covert operation. Defendants Bernard Barker and Eugenio Martinez were recruited by Hunt to conduct the operation. Hunt informed the defendants that they were to enter an office, search for a particular file, photograph it, and replace it. Contrary to plan, it was necessary for defendants to use force to effect the break-in, and as instructed, the defendants spilled pills on the floor to make it appear the break-in had been a search for drugs. No file with the name Ellsberg was found. Subsequently, the defendants were indicted under 18 U.S.C. § 241, along with other White House officers, for conspiring to violate the Fourth Amendment rights of Dr. Fielding by unlawfully entering and searching his office. The defendants submitted a memorandum outlining their proposed defense of absence of mens rea due to a mistake of fact mixed with law attributable to their reasonable reliance on apparent authority. The district court rejected the defendants’ position, holding that a mistake of law was no defense. Accordingly, the jury returned verdicts of guilty against the defendants. The defendants challenged their conviction.
Did defendants’ “mistake of fact mixed with law” negate the element of intent, thereby warranting the reversal of their convictions?
The court held that there was abundant evidence in the case from which the jury could have found that the defendants honestly and reasonably believed they were engaged in a top-secret national security operation lawfully authorized by a government intelligence agency. They were enlisted for the break-in by a White House official, E. Howard Hunt, whom they knew as a long-time government agent with the CIA. Moreover, the court noted that the defendants were told that the operation concerned national security involving a “traitor to the country.” Further, their long experience with the CIA had taught the defendants the importance of complete reliance on, and obedience to, their supervisor. That they should be expected to operate on a "need-to-know" basis was neither unusual nor cause for inquiry. The court further held that the defendants were able to show a legal theory on which to base a reasonable belief that Hunt possessed such authority. According to the court, the President had the authority to confer upon a group of aides in the White House more authority than the FBI or CIA. Accordingly, the court reversed the defendants’ convictions.