The Journal of Philosophy, Science & Law

The Journal of Philosophy, Science & Law
Volume 16, February 8, 2016, pages 1-12
full text version

Different Mistakes in the Law and the Difference They Make

Clifton Perry*

* Hudson Professor, Department of Political Science, Auburn University,

There are various sorts of mistakes one might make regarding the law.  For instance, one might incorrectly believe that there is a law when there isn’t one or that there is no law when there is. One might also know the law but incorrectly appraise the facts covered by the law. The former mistake is traditionally classified as a legal mistake while the latter is generally referred to as a factual mistake.  Both those under the law and those charged with enforcing the law are capable of making both sorts of mistakes.  As might well be expected, however, the consequences of a citizen’s legal or factual mistake might be quite distinct from those of the executive officer.  Perhaps contrary to common belief concerning the protections afforded the accused, it is more likely for the government to forgive empirical and legal mistakes made by governmental officers than it is for the government to forgive those same mistakes made by private parties in the role of the criminally accused.  Mistakes made by the former group may have no effect upon their endeavors, if certain conditions obtain.  Mistakes by the latter group, with two exceptions, will generally have significant legal effects.  To investigate the varied ramifications in light of two recent United States Supreme Court cases shall be the goal of this paper.

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