Cheek v. United States
498 U.S. 192 (1991)

  • Cheek mistakenly believed that he was not required to file income tax returns. He was incorrect.
    • Cheek believed that Federal income tax was unconstitutional based on information he read from a group of tax protestors.
  • Cheek was arrested and charged with not paying his taxes.
    • He was charged under 26 U.S.C. §7201 which makes it a felony to “willfully attempt” to avoid paying taxes.
  • At Trial, Cheek argued that he honestly believed that he owed no taxes and was not required to file a form (aka he made a mistake of law).
    • The Trial Judge instructed the jury that “honest but unreasonable belief is not a defense, and does not negate willfulness,” and that “advice or research resulting in the conclusion that wages of a privately employed person are not income or that the tax laws are unconstitutional is not objectively reasonable, and cannot serve as the basis for a good faith misunderstanding of the law defense.”
  • The Trial Court convicted Cheek of not paying taxes. He appealed.
  • The Appellate Court upheld the conviction. Cheek appealed.
  • The US Supreme Court reversed and remanded for a new trial.
    • The US Supreme Court found that the jury instructions were improper. They found that:
      • A genuine, good faith belief that one is not violating the Federal tax law based on a misunderstanding caused by the complexity of the tax law (e.g., the complexity of the statute itself) is a defense to a charge of “willfulness”, even though that belief is irrational or unreasonable.
      • However, a belief that the Federal income tax is unconstitutional is not a misunderstanding caused by the complexity of the tax law, and is not a defense to a charge of “willfulness”, even if that belief is genuine and is held in good faith.
  • On remand, Cheek was convicted of not paying his taxes and spent a year in jail.
  • Basically, this case said that if honestly misunderstand what the law says, then you can’t be said to be acting willfully, so if the law requires willfulness as an element you have a valid defense. However, if you understand that law but think it is in an invalid law (aka unconstitutional), it is not a valid defense to say that you misunderstood the law’s constitutionality.
  • See Model Penal Code §2.02(9), and §2.04(3).
    • To determine if a mistake of law is a valid defense against a Statute, look to see if that Statute includes the terms willingly or knowingly. If it does, then based on Cheek, there might be a defense.
      • Although the jurisprudence is mixed, and some courts have interpreted willfully to only mean that you willfully did the act, not that you willfully broke the law.