Introduction to Mental States in a Criminal Case

introduction to mental states in a criminal case

In order to be found guilty of a crime, the defendant must have had a specific mental state that is included under the elements of the crime. Without that mental state, the defendant might be found guilty of the charge. The mental state of an individual is referred to as the “mens rea”, which is Latin for a guilty mind.[i] The concept of the mens rea is so important the in justice system because it is based off a belief that people should only be punished for their actions if they acted in a way that would make them morally blameworthy.[ii] According to the law, people who intentionally act in a way that is morally blameworthy should be held accountable for those actions.

There are many different states of minds that the justice system recognizes as being apart of a crime. To name a few, negligence, intentional, deliberate, and reckless are to just name a few. This article will discuss the various types of mental states and how each relates to the crimes associated.

In the world of criminal defense, if the defendant can prove that they did not have the mental state required for the crime, the court is going to be hard pressed to find the defendant guilty. For that reason, among many, it is important to understand the mental state that is required for each crime – especially if you are charged with committed a crime.

Criminal Negligence and Recklessness

The majority of crimes will require some type of intentional act, but many crimes only require the person to be reckless or negligent. For the most part, negligence is typically found in the realm of civil law – but there are still a few crimes that require just negligence or recklessness for the crime.[iii] Even though negligence and recklessness have different definitions – the two are basically seen as one in the same in an actual courtroom.[iv] Depending on the court, reckless will require that the defendant actually appreciate the risk in question, while criminal negligence requires that the defendant should have been aware of the risk.[v]

negligence as one of the mental states in a criminal caseSome types of crimes that require only criminal negligence include criminally negligence homicide and negligent endangerment of a child. The first element involved with criminally negligent homicide is whether the defendant was aware of the unjustifiable risk associated with the events that led to the death of the other individual.[vi] An example of that would be if the victim and the defendant were playing with a gun, and then the victim was shot but the defendant, for whatever reason, refused to call for medical help.[vii] The defendant could be charged with criminally negligent homicide because most people understand and know that risks associated with a gunshot wound. It is also well know that a person could potentially die from a gunshot wound if not treated quickly after the injury. The fact that the defendant did not call for help after the victim was shot shows that he has a disregard for an unjustifiable risk, which was the potential death of his friend.

The next element associated with criminally negligent homicide is that there must have been an act or omission by the defendant.[viii] An example of this would be like the scenario listed above, where the defendant did not call for medical help after his friend had been shot. This would be considered an omission. Another example would be if a defendant were driving 50 miles per hour in a school zone, while children were being released from school.[ix] If the defendant hits and kills a child who was crossing the street at the time, there would be a direct cause and effect relationship from the defendant’s actions and the death of the child.[x] Some states require that there be a direct action, like the defendant speeding in the school zone, while other jurisdictions say that an omission is sufficient, like the defendant who refused to call for medical help.

The final element of criminally negligent homicide is causation.[xi] The act or omission by the defendant must have caused the death of the victim. If the state could prove the victim would have lived but for the defendant calling for medical help – the court will likely find that there was a causal connection between the omission and the result, which would find the defendant culpable for his actions.

Unintentional Conduct vs. Intentional Conduct

Those who are mistaken of fact and unintentionally engage in an illegal conduct could be found to be morally innocent because of that mistake.[xii] A person who breaks the law because he or she is honestly mistaken about the reality of the situation lacks the mens rea for the crime.[xiii] And if the person lacks the mens rea for the crime, they cannot be held accountable for those actions. For example, if a man hits another man because he believed he was about to be hit, then he lacks the required mens rea and will not be held accountable for his actions.

intentional and unintentional as mental states in a criminal caseThere is also a concept known as a mistake of law, but this does not negate the mens rea of an individual the way in which the mistake of fact typically would. When a person commits an act, and has every intention of doing so, but does not realize it was illegal –he still has the mens rea for the crime committed.[xiv] Just because you do not realize your actions are illegal, does not mean you are not responsible for those actions. You still have every intention of committing that that act and it just turns out to be illegal. Even if you argue that you would not have committed the crime if you knew it was illegal, that does not matter. Every citizen is expected to understand the law and not break it – even for things you were unaware were illegal.

An example of this could be if Beth sells cocaine, which she honestly believes is legal to do in the United States. Technically, Beth has the mens rea to commit the act, even if she does not believe the act was illegal. The mens rea goes to the act itself – not the later belief about whether or not it was illegal. If it were permissible to say “I did not know it was illegal to do that” and the court allows that person to get off – then no one would be culpable for anything. Everyone would just say “Judge, I did not know it was illegal” and then no one would be held accountable for their actions.

There are more crimes that require intentional acts. There are some laws that will only punish the violator if the person knowingly engage in an illegal activity.[xv] What is required of a person to know to be guilty of the crime will depend on the behavior that makes the act illegal to begin with.[xvi] For example, a drug law makes it illegal for a person to knowingly import an illegal drug into the United States.[xvii] In order for a defendant to be convicted of this crime, the prosecutor will have to prove to the jury or judge that the defendant knew that what he brought into the United States was an illegal drug.[xviii]

Now, there are crimes that require malice or willful behavior.[xix] Most people hear the word malicious and immediately think spiteful or wicked, but there is a different meaning under the law. Under the law, malicious means intentional and knowing.[xx] Malice is often used under the murder statutes. Another term that is commonly heard is malice aforethought. Malice aforethought is the state of mind necessary to prove first-degree murder.[xxi] The prosecution must prove that the defendant intended to cause the death or great bodily harm to the victim, or the defendant exhibited extreme and reckless indifference to the value of life.[xxii]

Crimes that Do Not Require Any Mental State

strict liability as one of the mental states in a criminal caseSome laws do not require a mens rea at all. These laws are called strict liability laws.[xxiii] These laws do not require any type of mental state when committing the crime, nor do these laws take into account that the person committing the crime may be morally innocent, meaning they had no idea what they were doing was a crime.[xxiv] These laws are known as strict liability laws, and the public policy behind these laws are the social benefits of strict enforcement of particular laws. This benefit of enforcing these particular laws is to protect a certain group of people. The following laws are enforced to protect minors.

Statutory rape is a strict liability crime.[xxv] Statutory rape laws are enforced in the majority states, and it makes it illegal to have sexual intercourse with a minor – even if the defendant honestly and reasonably believed that the minor was an adult, who would have been old enough to consent to the sexual intercourse.[xxvi] Under the strict liability crime law, it does not matter whether or not the adult knew the minor was actually a minor.

Selling alcohol to minors is another strict liability crime that is enforced in the majority of states.[xxvii] This law punishes clerks who sell alcohol to minors, even if the clerk honestly believed that the minor was an adult. It also does not matter whether or not the clerk looked at the minors identification and did not realize that identification was fake – it is still a strict liability crime and the clerk will be found guilty. Contact an experienced Phoenix criminal defense attorney for additional information on mental states in a criminal case.

[i] See How Defendant’s Mental States Affect Their Responsibility for a Crime NOLO Legal Encyclopedia (Accessed August 24, 2016) http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/crime-mental-state-defendant-29951.html

[ii] Id.

[iii] See What is Criminal Negligence NOLO Legal Encyclopedia (Accessed August 24, 2016) http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/what-criminal-negligence.html

[iv] Id.

[v] Id.

[vi] See What is Negligent Homicide? Free Advice Legal (Accessed August 23, 2016) http://criminal-law.freeadvice.com/criminal-law/violent_crimes/negligent-homicide.htm

[vii] Id.

[viii] Id.

[ix] Id.

[x] See What is Negligent Homicide? Free Advice Legal (Accessed August 23, 2016) http://criminal-law.freeadvice.com/criminal-law/violent_crimes/negligent-homicide.htm

[xi] Id.

[xii] See How Defendant’s Mental States Affect Their Responsibility for a Crime NOLO Legal Encyclopedia (Accessed August 24, 2016) http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/crime-mental-state-defendant-29951.html

[xiii] Id.

[xiv] Id.

[xv] Id.

[xvi] See How Defendant’s Mental States Affect Their Responsibility for a Crime NOLO Legal Encyclopedia (Accessed August 24, 2016) http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/crime-mental-state-defendant-29951.html

[xvii] Id.

[xviii] Id.

[xix] Id.

[xx] Id.

[xxi] See Malice Forethought NOLO Legal Encyclopedia (Accessed August 24, 2016) https://www.nolo.com/dictionary/malice-aforethought-term.html

[xxii] Id.

[xxiii] See How Defendant’s Mental States Affect Their Responsibility for a Crime NOLO Legal Encyclopedia (Accessed August 24, 2016) http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/crime-mental-state-defendant-29951.html

[xxiv] Id.

[xxv] See Statutory Rape NOLO Legal Encyclopedia (Accessed August 24, 2016) http://www.nolo.com/dictionary/statutory-rape-term.html

[xxvi] Id.

[xxvii] See How Defendant’s Mental States Affect Their Responsibility for a Crime NOLO Legal Encyclopedia (Accessed August 24, 2016) http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/crime-mental-state-defendant-29951.html