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

Case Name: Cheek v. United States
Citation: 498 U.S. 192 (1991)

Facts: Cheek was convicted of willfully failing to file a federal income tax return for a number of years. His defense was that he sincerely believed that under the tax laws he owed no taxes and that the tax laws were unconstitutional. Cheek received this information from seminars and his own study. The jury could not decide because they were divided on whether Cheek honestly and reasonably believed that he was not required to pay income tax. The trial judge responded that “an honest but unreasonable belief is not a defense and does not negate willfulness” and that the information Cheek received was “not objectively reasonable.” The jury then convicted Cheek.

Defendant’s argument: The trial judge erred in instructing the jury that only an “objectively reasonable” misunderstanding of the law negates the statutory willfulness requirement.

State’s argument: Mistake about the law is not a defense to criminal liability.

Holding: It was not error for the judge to instruct the jury not to consider Cheek’s claims that the tax laws were unconstitutional; however, it was error for the court to instruct the jury that Cheek’s beliefs should not be considered by the jury in determining whether Cheek acted willfully.

Reasoning: Because of the complexity of the tax laws, the Court has interpreted the term “willfully” as carving out an exception to the traditional rule and requires specific intent.

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