The general rule in criminal proceedings is that ignorance of the law or a misunderstanding of the applicability of the law is no excuse. This rule is based on a common law presumption that the law is "definite and knowable" by everyone. Based on the magnitude and complexity of modern tax law, however, special treatment has been accorded to criminal tax offenders, including a bona fide ignorance of the law defense. Yet, disagreement arises as to whether the ignorance or misunderstanding defense should be scrutinized under a subjective or objective standard. With the exception of the United States Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, the circuits have held that a subjective standard should be applied to defendants' asserted belief that they were ignorant of, or misunderstood, the law. In Cheek v. United States, the United States Supreme Court, by a six to two vote, upheld this majority position.

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