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
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
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.