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

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U.S. Supreme Court

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

Cheek v. United States

No. 89-658

Argued Oct. 3, 1990

Decided Jan. 8, 1991

498 U.S. 192


Petitioner Cheek was charged with six counts of willfully failing to file a federal income tax return in violation of § 7203 of the Internal Revenue Code (Code) and three counts of willfully attempting to evade his income taxes in violation of § 7201. Although admitting that he had not filed his returns, he testified that he had not acted willfully because he sincerely believed, based on his indoctrination by a group believing that the federal tax system is unconstitutional and his own study, that the tax laws were being unconstitutionally enforced and that his actions were lawful. In instructing the jury, the court stated that an honest but unreasonable belief is not a defense, and does not negate willfulness, and that Cheek's beliefs that wages are not income and that he was not a taxpayer within the meaning of the Code were not objectively reasonable. It also instructed the jury that a person's opinion that the tax laws violate his constitutional rights does not constitute a good-faith misunderstanding of the law. Cheek was convicted, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.


1. A good-faith misunderstanding of the law or a good-faith belief that one is not violating the law negates willfulness, whether or not the claimed belief or misunderstanding is objectively reasonable. Statutory willfulness, which protects the average citizen from prosecution for innocent mistakes made due to the complexity of the tax laws, United States v. Murdock, 290 U. S. 389, is the voluntary, intentional violation of a known legal duty. United States v. Pomponio, 429 U. S. 10. Thus, if the jury credited Cheek's assertion that he truly believed that the Code did not treat wages as income, the Government would not have carried its burden to prove willfulness, however unreasonable a court might deem such a belief. Characterizing a belief as objectively unreasonable transforms what is normally a factual inquiry into a legal one, thus preventing a jury from considering it. And forbidding a jury to consider evidence that might negate willfulness would raise a serious question under the Sixth Amendment's jury trial provision, which this interpretation of the statute avoids. Of course, in deciding whether to credit Cheek's claim, the jury is free to consider any admissible evidence showing that he had knowledge of his legal duties. Pp. 498 U. S. 199-204.

Page 498 U. S. 193

2. It was proper for the trial court to instruct the jury not to consider Cheek's claim that the tax laws are unconstitutional, since a defendant's views about the tax statutes' validity are irrelevant to the issue of willfulness, and should not be heard by a jury. Unlike the claims in the Murdock-Pomponio line of cases, claims that Code provisions are unconstitutional do not arise from innocent mistakes caused by the Code's complexity. Rather, they reveal full knowledge of the provisions at issue and a studied conclusion that those provisions are invalid and unenforceable. Congress could not have contemplated that a taxpayer, without risking criminal prosecution, could ignore his duties under the Code and refuse to utilize the mechanisms Congress provided to present his invalidity claims to the courts and to abide by their decisions. Cheek was free to pay the tax, file for a refund, and, if denied, present his claims to the courts. Also, without paying the tax, he could have challenged claims of tax deficiencies in the Tax Court. Pp. 498 U. S. 204-207.

882 F.2d 1263, (CA7 1989) vacated and remanded.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and STEVENS, O'CONNOR, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 498 U. S. 207. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 498 U. S. 209. SOUTER, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Primary Holding
There is no willful violation of the tax law if someone actually believes in good faith that he or she is not violating it, even if that belief is based on an unreasonable misunderstanding of the law. However, there is no defense to willfulness based on a belief that the tax law is invalid or unconstitutional.
After Cheek did not file federal income tax returns over a seven-year period, he was prosecuted for willful tax evasion. Since tax evasion is a specific intent crime, the prosecution needed to show that Cheek acted willfully. He admitted that he participated in ant-tax movements during that period and believed that the federal income tax was unconstitutional. He argued that this sincere understanding of the law negated the specific intent requirement, but the trial court judge instructed the jury that an unreasonable belief is not a defense to this element. Cheek also produced evidence that he genuinely believed that his wages were not income and that he thus was not a taxpayer within the meaning of the law. The judge also excluded this evidence. Cheek was convicted of tax evasion.



  • Byron Raymond White (Author)
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • John Paul Stevens
  • Sandra Day O'Connor
  • Anthony M. Kennedy

The specific intent requirement may not be shown if the defendant was unaware of the law or misunderstood it, and this belief was held in good faith, even if it was not objectively reasonable. Willfulness is necessary to prove for violations of the tax law, since it is complex. The defendant's view about the constitutionality of the law reveals his awareness of it and is not an innocent mistake or misunderstanding, so it does not give rise to a defense against the specific intent element. The judge acted appropriately in withholding this evidence from the jury.

On the other hand, the judge erred in refusing to allow the jury to consider the defendant's subjective beliefs that his wages were not income and thus that he was not a taxpayer under the Internal Revenue Code. This could give rise to a defense against the specific intent element.


  • Antonin Scalia (Author)


  • Harry Andrew Blackmun (Author)
  • Thurgood Marshall


  • David H. Souter (Author)

Case Commentary

This decision applies almost entirely to the tax laws at this stage and should not be extended too broadly. It shows the distinctiveness of prosecutions in that area.

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