Cheek v. United States Case Brief

Why is the case important?

Defendant Cheek was convicted under a provision of the Federal Tax Code that makes it a felony to “willfully attempt in any manner to evade or defeat any tax imposed by this title or payment thereof” for failing to file a tax return. Defendant argued that he had acted on information he received from a group opposing the institution of taxation and based on this information he believed that he did not owe any taxes.

Facts of the case

Question

Can a mistake based on an honest but unreasonable belief negate the element of willfulness?

Answer

Yes. Judgment reversed and remanded.
The general rule is that mistake of law is not a viable defense to a criminal prosecution. However, the statutes of tax law sometime make it difficult for the average citizen to know the extent of his/her duties under tax law. Therefore specific intent to violate the law is an element of certain Federal criminal tax offenses. The term willfully carves out an exception to the traditional rule that mistake of law is not a defense.

Conclusion

The Supreme Court held that petitioner was entitled to an instruction on good faith misunderstanding of the tax laws as to his belief that wages were not income, whether or not such a belief was objectively reasonable. Knowledge and belief should normally have been questions for the jury. The defense of good faith misunderstanding did not apply to claims of unconstitutionality, however, because such claims arose not from innocent mistakes but from knowledge of the law and disagreement with its provisions. The court vacated and remanded the case back to the lower court.

  • Case Brief: 1991
  • Petitioner: Cheek
  • Respondent: United States
  • Decided by: Rehnquist Court

Citation: 498 US 192 (1991)
Argued: Oct 3, 1990
Decided: Jan 8, 1991