Cheek v. United States

498 U.S. 192, 111 S. Ct. 604 (1991)



Willfulness, as construed in criminal tax cases, requires the government to prove that the law imposed a duty on the defendant, that he knew of this duty, and that he voluntarily and intentionally violated that duty. If the government proves actual knowledge of the legal duty, the prosecution, without more, has satisfied the knowledge component of the willfulness but misunderstanding may remain.


A case was filed against a man for several counts of "willfully" attempting to evade income taxes and "willfully" failing to file federal income tax returns. This man was a tax protester who purposely did not file tax returns or pay taxes for several years because he believed that wages were not a form of taxable income and that the tax laws were unconstitutional. During his trial, the district court instructed the jury that good faith misunderstanding of the tax laws was not a defense where the asserted beliefs were unreasonable, and he was convicted for tax evasion. On appeal, the appellate court affirmed. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.


Were the instructions given to the jury proper?




The Supreme Court held that petitioner was entitled to an instruction on good faith misunderstanding of the tax laws as to his belief that wages were not income, whether or not such a belief was objectively reasonable. Knowledge and belief should normally have been questions for the jury. The defense of good faith misunderstanding did not apply to claims of unconstitutionality, however, because such claims arose not from innocent mistakes but from knowledge of the law and disagreement with its provisions. The court vacated and remanded the case back to the lower court.

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