For most crimes, the government must prove that the defendant acted intentionally. This seems like it should be a fairly high bar particularly in white-collar criminal cases but it’s not.
For most crimes, the government need only prove that the conduct was not accidental or that the defendant intended to engage in the conduct. This is called “general intent.”
Tax fraud is another matter. In a tax fraud case the government must prove a higher level of intent called “specific intent.” Specific intent means that the defendant not only intended to engage in the conduct but also that he intended a specific result (e.g., to defraud someone). To denote specific intent, criminal statutes often use the word “willful.”
To prove criminal tax evasion, the government must prove (1) a tax deficiency, (2) an affirmative act constituting evasion or attempted evasion of taxes, and (3) willfulness. Under section 7201, willfulness is the “voluntary, intentional violation of a known legal duty.” Cheek v. United States, 498 U. S. 192, 201 (1991).
In other words, the government must prove not only that the defendant acted intentionally and not accidentally, but also that the defendant knew that he was breaking the law.
Many defendants in criminal cases–particularly white-collar criminal cases–try to argue that they didn’t realize what they were doing was illegal. In most criminal cases, that defense holds no water because they are simply general intent crimes. But that defense could work in a tax evasion case.
So does this mean the defendant often wins in tax evasion cases? Nope.