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Court of Appeals Recognizes Mistake of Fact Defense in Child Sex Cases

April 30, 2013

In Castaneira v. State, the Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the defendant’s convictions for criminal attempt to commit child molestation, criminal attempt to entice a child for indecent purposes, computer pornography, child exploitation, and obscene internet contact with a child after determining that he had the requisite knowledge that the intended victim was 15 years-old.

The Court’s decision, however, may have a significant impact on the defense of future child sexual offense cases as the Court took the position that a defendant’s lack of knowledge of an alleged victim’s age can give rise to a mistake of fact defense.

A detective with the Peachtree City Police Department created a fictitious account with an adult online chatroom service. In the detective’s profile, she claimed to be a 31 year-old woman named “April.” After she and Castaneira began speaking, he asked her how old she was. She responded she was 15 years old. Despite this information, Castaneira continued speaking with April, sending sexually explicit photos of himself and making plans to meet up with her for sexual purposes. The two made plans to meet at a grocery store near April’s house. When Castaneira arrived and approached the detective posing as the girl, he was arrested.

The Court of Appeals rejected Castaneira’s argument that the evidence warranted a jury instruction on mistake of fact, holding that there was insufficient evidence indicating that he was mistaken about April’s age.

Even though the Court of Appeals affirmed Castaneira’s convictions, it indicated that mistake of fact could have been an affirmative defense had the circumstances been different. The Court held that “this is not a case where an adolescent led the defendant to believe that she was an adult; rather, this is a case where the intended victim told the defendant that she was underage.” Even though Castaneira claimed that he believed “April” was an adult playing the role of an adolescent, the Court noted that he took no steps to confirm this belief. Thus, any mistake or ignorance on Castaneira’s part resulted from his own failure to inquire further into April’s actual age.

This holding departs from prior Georgia appellate cases where courts have held that mistake of fact is not a defense in child sexual offense cases. See Schultz v. State, 267 Ga. App. 240 (2004) (holding that mistake of fact is not a defense to the crime of child molestation); Neal v. State, 264 Ga. App. 311 (2003) (holding that mistake of fact is not a defense to the crime of statutory rape). Thus, this decision lays the groundwork for a mistake of fact defense in future cases where a child lies about his or her age and the defendant reasonably relies on the misrepresentation.

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