Mens Rea is the Latin term used to refer to a “guilty state of mind.” This most commonly is used in a court of law to refer to what a criminal was thinking or intended when they committed or took part in criminal activity. This means that the state of mind the defendant was in when they committed the crime does in fact have bearing on the case. Mens rea is what allows your defense attorney to argue that you did not intentionally set out to commit or take part in criminal activity.
One example of how this plays out in a court of law is as follows: Consider two different automobile drivers who both are involved in a fatal accident with a pedestrian. In one case, the driver never even saw the pedestrian until it was, in fact, too late for them to do anything meaningful that could prevent the accident from occurring. What’s more, they did their best to stop with the notice they had. Though this person is still liable, because they were not in the state of a criminal and did not plan out the crime, they can only be tried in a civil court that, instead of issuing a sentence, seeks to secure monetary damages for the family of the deceased.
In this same example, the second driver actually set out to find a pedestrian. Upon seeing such a pedestrian, the second driver purposefully swerved toward him while hitting the gas. Because this driver clearly intended to cause great harm to or kill the pedestrian, they would be considered criminally liable because of Mes Rea. The result of both accidents is the same, but the penalty on driver two will be far superior simply because of their state of mind. This example illustrates a significant legal distinction:
CARELESSNESS VS. CRIMINAL INTENT
In legal settings, being careless and causing a crime is often called “negligence.” Negligence typically tends to result in civil cases, as opposed to criminal liability. This does not always hold true as circumstances can turn what would generally be considered carelessness into something a bit more culpable. As such, certain criminal statute’s negligence standards include what is called “reckless negligence.” A good example of this would be leaving out items that could harm others in a public area like the sidewalk in front of your house. If the item you left out was a lawn chair that could do little more than trip and slightly injure someone, this would be considered negligence. If, however, you left out a can of flammable gasoline or something else dangerous, the charge could be considered reckless because the seriousness of a resulting injury is far higher.
THE QUESTION OF INTENTION
When it comes to intentionally harmful behavior, this is almost always considered criminal. However, when the harmful behavior is unintentional, it is considered either a “mistake in law” or a “mistake in fact.”
A mistake in fact would be a situation where you did something that was illegal, yet didn’t know that you were doing something illegal. For example, if you sold a bottled beverage to someone under the age of twenty-one that was alcoholic but which you believed to be a non-alcoholic beverage (say it was mislabeled at the plant), this would mean you are “mistaken about a fact” that is central to committing the crime of serving alcohol to a minor in this case. The result of this case is that the necessary Mens Rea needed to seek a criminal conviction is not present because in your mind you were not committing a law but selling a non-alcoholic beverage. Though this situation is likely never to happen, it does well to illustrate what a mistake in fact looks like legally speaking.
A mistake in law is very different than a mistake in fact and rarely, if ever, can be found to prevent you from having criminal liability form your actions. Ever heard the phrase “Ignorance is no excuse?” This refers a mistake in law. So go back to the example of selling alcohol to someone under twenty-one. Say you knew there was alcohol in the beverage but you are used to laws in a different country where you can serve alcohol to people over the age of 18. So if you sell the bottle of alcohol to someone under twenty-one and know it’s alcohol but don’t know that doing so is illegal, you are still criminally liable. Again, this example is a bit unrealistic as you have to be licensed to serve alcohol in US states which requires taking a class where you become familiar with such laws. Nonetheless, it illustrates the difference between a mistake in fact and a mistake in law nicely. Now this might seem unfair, but it’s very necessary to prevent people from purposefully remaining ignorant of the law which would severely reduce the effectiveness of the US legal system.
There is another section of laws that do not require any Mens Rea to be present for criminal liability. These laws are called “strict liability” laws. Such laws pertain to acts that, no matter how they were original intended, should be punished criminally. Such laws include statutory rape and selling alcohol to a minor (it doesn’t matter if you genuinely thought they were older). These laws are strict liability laws to protect minors more than someone who might be innocent (the point being that the law is more concerned with protecting minors than making sure an “innocent” adult is punished unfairly).
WHEN YOU HAVE KNOWLEDGE THAT YOU ARE COMMITTING A CRIME
There are a good number of criminal laws that require guilty parties “know” they are committing a crime in order to have criminal liability. What must be “known” changes depending on the crime in question. One example of this would be that someone found guilty of drug trafficking would need to know they had brought drugs into the country to be found guilty. If, for example, they’d been given a gift that had drugs hidden inside of that they were unaware of, they’d not be criminally liable because no Mens Rea could be established.
THE ISSUE OF “SPECIFIC INTENT”
This type of Mens Rea would refer to any class of crime where there was a particular goal, that is that someone did some actions with the expectation of something happening. An easy example of this is robbery or theft. The language with theft requires that you not just take something, but take it with the full intent to “permanently deprive” it’s owner of using whatever it is you steal. This means that borrowing your friend’s cellphone is not theft even if you didn’t let them know about it. This is because you never intended to keep it permanently.
MALICIOUS OR WILLFUL CRIMES
There are some criminal laws that will describe conduct as being willful or malicious. There isn’t much these distinctions add beyond “willingly” and “knowingly,” but with crimes like murder, they can indicate a greater measure of willingness that can result in a murder charge of a higher degree. The reasoning behind this is that killing someone in a fit of passion or anger is a very different crime than devising an elaborate plan in cold blood. Often, such “willingness” indicates that someone had full knowledge that their act was illegal, yet still planned and carried out the actions.
STILL HAVE QUESTIONS?
The motive in such cases matters because it reveals that an act was down both knowingly and with a specific intent. If you or someone you love has recently been accused of a crime and you have questions, call the Law Offices of Yoel Molina today. Yoel is an experienced, compassionate, and highly-qualified criminal defense attorney in the greater Miami area. Don’t take a chance and face your charges on your own, call today!