The Supreme Court of Delaware holds that a mistake of law is allowable as a defense to a defendant who engages in criminal conduct where his ignorance or mistake is coupled with a prior attempt to ascertain and abide by the law before engaging in the conduct at issue.
Defendant married his first wife in Delaware, where he had resided. After separating from his first wife, defendant moved to Arkansas, where he lived for the statutory period required to obtain a divorce. After receiving a divorce, defendant returned to Delaware and married his second wife. Defendant was subsequently charged with bigamy. Defendant argued Delaware law required the court to recognize the Arkansas divorce judgment without considering whether the defendant had met the residency requirements. Defendant also argued that mistake of law was a defense to bigamy. The Delaware trial court found the defendant guilty, based on a jury verdict, of bigamy under Del. Rev. Code § 5254.
Was the verdict for bigamy proper?
The Court first held a jury could consider whether the defendant actually established domicile in Arkansas requisite to a Delaware court recognizing the Arkansas divorce. However, the court held that the trial court improperly instructed the jury as to the residency requirements for jurisdiction. Thus, the lower court judgment was vacated and remanded for new trial. The Court also noted that the trial court made an error in its refusal to allow an affirmative defense and that mistake of law was a defense to bigamy, provided the mistake was subsequent to an attempt to ascertain and abide by the bigamy statute.