JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.
Title 26, § 7201 of the United States Code provides that any person "who willfully attempts in any manner to evade or defeat any tax imposed by this title or the payment thereof" shall be guilty of a felony. Under 26 U. S. C. § 7203, "[a]ny person required under this title . . . or by regulations made under authority thereof to make a return . . . who willfully fails to . . . make such return" shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.
Petitioner John L. Cheek has been a pilot for American Airlines since 1973. He filed federal income tax returns through 1979 but thereafter ceased to file returns.
As a result of his activities, petitioner was indicted for 10 violations of federal law. He was charged with six counts of willfully failing to file a federal income tax return for the years 1980, 1981, and 1983 through 1986, in violation of 26 U. S. C. § 7203. He was further charged with three counts of willfully attempting to evade his income taxes for the years 1980, 1981, and 1983 in violation of § 7201. In those years, American Airlines withheld substantially less than the amount of tax petitioner owed because of the numerous allowances and exempt status he claimed on his W-4 forms.
At trial, the evidence established that between 1982 and 1986, petitioner was involved in at least four civil cases that
Cheek represented himself at trial and testified in his defense. He admitted that he had not filed personal income tax returns during the years in question. He testified that as early as 1978, he had begun attending seminars sponsored
In the course of its instructions, the trial court advised the jury that to prove "willfulness" the Government must prove the voluntary and intentional violation of a known legal duty, a burden that could not be proved by showing mistake, ignorance, or negligence. The court further advised the jury that an objectively reasonable good-faith misunderstanding of the law would negate willfulness, but mere disagreement with the law would not. The court described Cheek's beliefs about the income tax system
After several hours of deliberation, the jury sent a note to the judge that stated in part:
The District Judge responded with a supplemental instruction containing the following statements:
At the end of the first day of deliberation, the jury sent out another note saying that it still could not reach a verdict because "`[w]e are divided on the issue as to if Mr. Cheek honestly & reasonably believed that he was not required to pay income tax.'" Id., at 87. When the jury resumed its deliberations, the District Judge gave the jury an additional instruction. This instruction stated in part that "[a]n honest but unreasonable belief is not a defense and does not negate willfulness," id., at 88, and that "[a]dvice 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." Ibid. The court also instructed the jury that "[p]ersistent refusal to acknowledge the law does not constitute a good
Petitioner appealed his convictions, arguing that the District Court erred by instructing the jury that only an objectively reasonable misunderstanding of the law negates the statutory willfulness requirement. The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit rejected that contention and affirmed the convictions. 882 F.2d 1263 (1989). In prior cases, the Seventh Circuit had made clear that good-faith misunderstanding of the law negates willfulness only if the defendant's beliefs are objectively reasonable; in the Seventh Circuit, even actual ignorance is not a defense unless the defendant's ignorance was itself objectively reasonable. See, e. g., United States v. Buckner, 830 F.2d 102 (1987). In its opinion in this case, the court noted that several specified beliefs, including the beliefs that the tax laws are unconstitutional and that wages are not income, would not be objectively reasonable.
The general rule that ignorance of the law or a mistake of law is no defense to criminal prosecution is deeply rooted in the American legal system. See, e. g., United States v. Smith, 5 Wheat. 153, 182 (1820) (Livingston, J., dissenting); Barlow v. United States, 7 Pet. 404, 411 (1833); Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145, 167 (1879); Shevlin-Carpenter Co. v. Minnesota, 218 U.S. 57, 68 (1910); Lambert v. California, 355 U.S. 225, 228 (1957); Liparota v. United States, 471 U.S. 419, 441 (1985) (WHITE, J., dissenting); 0. Holmes, The Common Law 47-48 (1881). Based on the notion that the law is definite and knowable, the common law presumed that every person knew the law. This common-law rule has been applied by the Court in numerous cases construing criminal statutes. See, e. g., United States v. International Minerals & Chemical Corp., 402 U.S. 558 (1971); Hamling v. United States, 418 U.S. 87, 119-124 (1974); Boyce Motor Lines, Inc. v. United States, 342 U.S. 337 (1952).
The proliferation of statutes and regulations has sometimes made it difficult for the average citizen to know and comprehend
The Court held that the defendant was entitled to an instruction with respect to whether he acted in good faith based on his actual belief. In Murdock, the Court interpreted the term "willfully" as used in the criminal tax statutes generally to mean "an act done with a bad purpose," id., at 394, or with "an evil motive," id., at 395.
Subsequent decisions have refined this proposition. In United States v. Bishop, 412 U.S. 346 (1973), we described the term "willfully" as connoting "a voluntary, intentional violation of a known legal duty," id., at 360, and did so with specific reference to the "bad faith or evil intent" language employed in Murdock. Still later, United States v. Pomponio, 429 U.S. 10 (1976) (per curiam), addressed a situation in which several defendants had been charged with willfully filing false tax returns. The jury'was given an instruction on willfulness similar to the standard set forth in Bishop. In addition, it was instructed that "`[g]ood motive alone is never a defense where the act done or omitted is a crime.'" Id., at 11. The defendants were convicted but the Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that the latter instruction
We reversed the Court of Appeals, stating that "the Court of Appeals incorrectly assumed that the reference to an `evil motive' in United States v. Bishop, supra, and prior cases," ibid., "requires proof of any motive other than an intentional violation of a known legal duty." Id., at 12. As "the other Courts of Appeals that have considered the question have recognized, willfulness in this context simply means a voluntary, intentional violation of a known legal duty." Ibid. We concluded that after instructing the jury on willfulness, "[a]n additional instruction on good faith was unnecessary." Id., at 13. Taken together, Bishop and Pomponio conclusively establish that the standard for the statutory willfulness requirement is the "voluntary, intentional violation of a known legal duty."
Cheek accepts the Pomponio definition of willfulness, Brief for Petitioner 5, and n. 4, 13, 36; Reply Brief for Petitioner 4, 6-7, 11, 13, but asserts that the District Court's instructions and the Court of Appeals' opinion departed from that definition. In particular, he challenges the ruling that a good-faith misunderstanding of the law or a good-faith belief that one is not violating the law, if it is to negate willfulness, must be objectively reasonable. We agree that the Court of Appeals and the District Court erred in this respect.
Willfulness, as construed by our prior decisions in criminal tax cases, requires the Government to prove that the law imposed a duty on the defendant, that the defendant knew of this duty, and that he voluntarily and intentionally violated that duty. We deal first with the case where the issue is whether the defendant knew of the duty purportedly imposed by the provision of the statute or regulation he is accused of violating, a case in which there is no claim that the provision
In this case, if Cheek asserted that he truly believed that the Internal Revenue Code did not purport to treat wages as income, and the jury believed him, the Government would not have carried its burden to prove willfulness, however unreasonable a court might deem such a belief. Of course, in deciding whether to credit Cheek's good-faith belief claim, the jury would be free to consider any admissible evidence from any source showing that Cheek was aware of his duty to file a return and to treat wages as income, including evidence showing his awareness of the relevant provisions of the Code or regulations, of court decisions rejecting his interpretation of the tax law, of authoritative rulings of the Internal Revenue Service, or of any contents of the personal income tax return forms and accompanying instructions that made it plain that wages should be returned as income.
It was therefore error to instruct the jury to disregard evidence of Cheek's understanding that, within the meaning of the tax laws, he was not a person required to file a return or to pay income taxes and that wages are not taxable income, as incredible as such misunderstandings of and beliefs about the law might be. Of course, the more unreasonable the asserted
Cheek asserted in the trial court that he should be acquitted because he believed in good faith that the income tax law is unconstitutional as applied to him and thus could not legally impose any duty upon him of which he should have been aware.
Claims that some of the provisions of the tax code are unconstitutional are submissions of a different order.
We do not believe that Congress contemplated that such a taxpayer, without risking criminal prosecution, could ignore the duties imposed upon him by the Internal Revenue Code and refuse to utilize the mechanisms provided by Congress to present his claims of invalidity to the courts and to abide by their decisions. There is no doubt that Cheek, from year to year, was free to pay the tax that the law purported to require, file for a refund and, if denied, present his claims of invalidity, constitutional or otherwise, to the courts. See 26 U. S. C. § 7422. Also, without paying the tax, he could have challenged claims of tax deficiencies in the Tax Court, § 6213, with the right to appeal to a higher court if unsuccessful. § 7482(a)(1). Cheek took neither course in some years, and when he did was unwilling to accept the outcome. As we see it, he is in no position to claim that his good-faith belief about the validity of the Internal Revenue Code negates willfulness or provides a defense to criminal prosecution under §§ 7201 and 7203. Of course, Cheek was free in this very case to present his claims of invalidity and have them adjudicated, but like defendants in criminal cases in other contexts, who "willfully" refuse to comply with the duties placed upon them by the law, he must take the risk of being wrong.
We thus hold that in a case like this, a defendant's views about the validity of the tax statutes are irrelevant to the issue of willfulness and need not be heard by the jury, and, if they are, an instruction to disregard them would be proper. For this purpose, it makes no difference whether the claims of invalidity are frivolous or have substance. It was therefore not error in this case for the District 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
For the reasons set forth in the opinion above, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.
JUSTICE SOUTER took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.
JUSTICE SCALIA, concurring in the judgment.
I concur in the judgment of the Court because our cases have consistently held that the failure to pay a tax in the good-faith belief that it is not legally owing is not "willful." I do not join the Court's opinion because I do not agree with the test for willfulness that it directs the Court of Appeals to apply on remand.
As the Court acknowledges, our opinions from the 1930's to the 1970's have interpreted the word "willfully" in the criminal tax statutes as requiring the "bad purpose" or "evil motive" of "intentional[ly] violat[ing] a known legal duty." See, e. g., United States v. Pomponio, 429 U.S. 10, 12 (1976); United States v. Murdock, 290 U.S. 389, 394-395 (1933). It seems to me that today's opinion squarely reverses that long-established statutory construction when it says that a good-faith erroneous belief in the unconstitutionality of a tax law is no defense. It is quite impossible to say that a statute which
Although the facts of the present case involve erroneous reliance upon the Constitution in ignoring the otherwise "known legal duty" imposed by the tax statutes, the Court's new interpretation applies also to erroneous reliance upon a tax statute in ignoring the otherwise "known legal duty" of a regulation, and to erroneous reliance upon a regulation in ignoring the otherwise "known legal duty" of a tax assessment. These situations as well meet the opinion's crucial test of "reveal[ing] full knowledge of the provisions at issue and a studied conclusion, however wrong, that those provisions are invalid and unenforceable," ante, at 205-206. There is, moreover, no rational basis for saying that a "willful" violation is established by full knowledge of a statutory requirement, but is not established by full knowledge of a requirement explicitly imposed by regulation or order. Thus, today's opinion works a revolution in past practice, subjecting to criminal penalties taxpayers who do not comply with Treasury Regulations that are in their view contrary to the Internal Revenue Code, Treasury Rulings that are in their view contrary to the regulations, and even IRS auditor pronouncements that are in their view contrary to Treasury Rulings. The law already provides considerable incentive for taxpayers to be careful in ignoring any official assertion of tax liability, since it contains civil penalties that apply even in the event of a good-faith mistake, see, e. g., 26 U. S. C. §§ 6651, 6653. To impose in addition criminal penalties for misinterpretation of such a complex body of law is a startling innovation indeed.
I find it impossible to understand how one can derive from the lonesome word "willfully" the proposition that belief in the nonexistence of a textual prohibition excuses liability, but belief in the invalidity (i. e., the legal nonexistence) of a textual prohibition does not. One may say, as the law does
Because today's opinion abandons clear and longstanding precedent to impose criminal liability where taxpayers have had no reason to expect it, because the new contours of criminal liability have no basis in the statutory text, and because I strongly suspect that those new contours make no sense even as a policy matter, I concur only in the judgment of the Court.
JUSTICE BLACKMUN, with whom JUSTICE MARSHALL joins, dissenting.
It seems to me that we are concerned in this case not with "the complexity of the tax laws," ante, at 200, but with the income tax law in its most elementary and basic aspect: Is a wage earner a taxpayer and are wages income?
The Court acknowledges that the conclusively established standard for willfulness under the applicable statutes is the "`voluntary, intentional violation of a known legal duty.'" Ante, at 201. See United States v. Bishop, 412 U.S. 346, 360 (1973), and United States v. Pomponio, 429 U.S. 10, 12 (1976). That being so, it is incomprehensible to me how, in this day, more than 70 years after the institution of our
The District Court's instruction that an objectively reasonable and good-faith misunderstanding of the law negates willfulness lends further, rather than less, protection to this defendant, for it adds an additional hurdle for the prosecution to overcome. Petitioner should be grateful for this further protection, rather than be opposed to it.
This Court's opinion today, I fear, will encourage taxpayers to cling to frivolous views of the law in the hope of convincing a jury of their sincerity. If that ensues, I suspect we have gone beyond the limits of common sense.
While I may not agree with every word the Court of Appeals has enunciated in its opinion, I would affirm its judgment in this case. I therefore dissent.
"He testified he relied on his interpretations and on these materials in concluding that he was not a person required to file income tax returns for the year or years charged, was not required to pay income taxes and that he could claim exempt status on his W-4 forms, and that he could claim refunds of all moneys withheld." App. 75-76.
"Among other things, Mr. Cheek contends that his wages from a private employer, American Airlines, does [sic] not constitute income under the Internal Revenue Service laws." Id., at 81.
"For the record, we note that the following beliefs, which are stock arguments of the tax protester movement, have not been, nor ever will be, considered `objectively reasonable' in this circuit:
"(1) the belief that the sixteenth amendment to the constitution was improperly ratified and therefore never came into being;
"(2) the belief that the sixteenth amendment is unconstitutional generally;
"(3) the belief that the income tax violates the takings clause of the fifth amendment;
"(4) the belief that the tax laws are unconstitutional; "(5) the belief that wages are not income and therefore are not subject to federal income tax laws;
"(6) the belief that filing a tax return violates the privilege against self-incrimination; and
"(7) the belief that Federal Reserve Notes do not constitute cash or income.
"Miller v. United States, 868 F.2d 236, 239-41 (7th Cir. 1989); Buckner, 830 F. 2d at 102; United States v. Dube, 820 F.2d 886, 891 (7th Cir. 1987); Coleman v. Comm'r, 791 F.2d 68, 70-71 (7th Cir. 1986); Moore, 627 F. 2d at 833. We have no doubt that this list will increase with time."
"If the person believes as a personal belief that known—law known to them [sic] is unconstitutional, I submit that that would not be a defense, because what the person is really saying is I know what the law is, for constitutional reasons I have made my own determination that it is invalid. I am not suggesting that that is a defense.
"However, if the person was told by a lawyer or by an accountant erroneously that the statute is unconstitutional, and it's my professional advice to you that you don't have to follow it, then you have got a little different situation. This is not that case." Id., at 6.
Given this posture of the case, we perceive no reason not to address the significance of Cheek's constitutional claims to the issue of willfulness.