To err is human — not a crime

To err is human — not a crime

On March 17, 2016, a panel of the DC Court of Appeals delivered a unanimous decision in favor of Nigel Barrella’s client. Nigel had argued this case before the court on September 22, 2015.

In this case, Nigel’s client had been charged with missing his court date, though he testified that he had made a simple mistake — getting the court date confused. And although the trial judge appeared to believe his excuse, she also believed the law required a guilty finding. The government had argued that he was guilty simply because he did not double-check to make sure what his court date was.

Rejecting the government’s argument, the Court of Appeals reversed. The law at issue makes “willful” violations a crime, and the court made clear that “willful” means “knowing, intentional, and deliberate” — not inadvertent or accidental. After clarifying the law, the court sent the case back to the trial judge for reconsideration.

Subsequently, on August 11, 2017, the trial judge entered a verdict of not guilty.

Going forward, this precedential ruling of the Court of Appeals helps reinforce a bedrock principle of criminal law: the government should be required to prove criminal intent (with rare, limited exceptions). Innocent mistakes should not be the stuff of criminal prosecutions.

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