‘Mens rea” is a Latin term that means criminal intent or just intent to do harm. Before a state convicts a person of a crime, it must prove the criminal intent. In this case, it is referred to as the mental element of the person at time the crime was committed (Mens Rea n.d.). The mental element consists of four states of mind, the person is subjected to the most severe punishment when he/she did something purposely, knowingly recklessly and negligent. “Mens rea” is not applicable in cases of strict liability when a guilty verdict does not necessarily require a “mens rea”, these include laws that protect public safety and security from drugs, food of poor quality and transportation. (Lippman 2010).The requirement of “mens rea” is used to establish the criminal liability of a person.
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The common law originally punished criminal acts whether they were intentional or not, while religious laws stress on sinfulness and moral guilt which helped introduce the idea “mens rea”. Before one is punished because of a criminal act, the reasons behind the committed crime should also be considered. These two ways of dealing with crime were incorporated into the American criminal jurisprudence rather as rules than as an exception in the process. The reason behind incorporating the two notions was that people had to be responsible for what they do whether intentionally or not; the law also seeks to prevent people with criminal intentions from violating the law and using “mens rea” as a scapegoat for their criminal acts, and the severity of the punishment one gets should be according to the scale of the crime (Lippman 2010)
This requirement needs to be applied in all cases because the law seeks to establish a concurrence between criminal intend and criminal act which can cause a prohibited harm or injury for one to be found guilty. The criminal act must be the cause or some deed that results in harm or injury as well as a legal proximity cause (Lippmam 2010). Looking at the history of law, it is clearly stated in Latin “Actus non facit rum nisi mens sit rea:” which means that a crime cannot exist without criminal intend. “A coincidental act does not break the chain of causation caused by defendants criminal act unless the intervening act was unforeseeable, and a responsive act does not break the chain of causation unless the interact was both abnormal and unforeseeable.”(Lippman 2010)
The case of Flores-Figueroa vs. the United States (556 U.S. 646 2009) was an exception of strict liability as it involved a Mexican illegal immigrant who unknowingly used forged social security card details which belonged to another citizen. Though this case falls into strict liability, the court held that “mens rea” was applicable as Flores-Figueroa used the card details without knowing they belonged to another person. The U.S. Supreme Court concluded this line of cases by expounding an interpretive approach which applies the “mens rea” term to every subsequent element of the offense. (Traps 2012)
A major setback of “mens rea” is its concepts that are very confusing. This became evident in 1972 when the United States used six different terms to describe mental elements. They were willfully, unlawfully, feloniously, fraudulently, wantonly, recklessly, among others. The prosecutors needed to establish “mens rea” beyond reasonable doubts, which made it hard for them to gather the evidence needed taking its complexity into account. This is because we cannot know exactly what is there, in person’s mind, the only evidence that is available is defendants’ confession and witness’s accounts being given. This affects the truthfulness of the accounts as they might not be true (Lippman 2010). The U.S. Supreme court has noted that it is in nature of a person to be afraid of having criminal intend due to the fear of punishment if they are found guilty (Lippman 2010). This affects the credibility and the degree to which the requirement can be used because a guilty person can use it as a defense.
In the case of strict liability, “mens rea” should not be used when the crime being committed posses a great risk to the general public and environment.
Case study: The United States vs. Int’l Minerals & Chem. Corp., 402 U.S. 558, 565 (1971). The defendant knowingly shipped sulfuric acid, which is a dangerous product, without showing papers stating what was shipped. The defendants argued that they did not know it was a crime. The reasoning is held that when dangerous products or obnoxious waste materials are involved, the probability of regulation is so great that anyone who is aware of possessing them is presumed to be also aware of the regulation (Lippman 2010).
The article “As Federal Crime List Grows, Threshold of Guilt Declines” by Fields (2011) notes that “mens rea” as a principle is eroded “as the U.S. federal criminal code dramatically swells”. This is because the congress crafted laws which have weakened the principle of “mens rea”. It further observes that due to this there are more laws today than before that one can fall victim of without knowing it. The article further states that a study conducted by the conservative foundation and the national association of criminal lawyers concluded more 40% of the amendments made by the 109th and 111st congress were nonviolent offences and had weak “mens rea” requirements.
The erosion of the “mens rea” requirement is made due to the way congressional laws are made. The lawmakers want to show people how much they are concerned about crime; they should uphold the role of “mens rea” in the writing of their laws. In 1790 when the first criminal law was passed, it contained less than 20 crimes. Today, there are over 4500 crimes, and more of them are under the federal statutes; this makes it very hard for the prosecutors to proof “mens rea” in the cases they handle (Fields 2011). Due to these changes, most of the time, the justice system only needs to prove that when one breaks the law, he/she should know that it is a criminal act. This needs to be changed.
The complexity of the principle of “mens rea” and the number of crimes under the criminal law make it hard to apply the rule of “mens rea” in all cases. Prosecutors are also involved in a huge number of Court cases which give them less time to deal with each one of them sufficiently. This makes it hard for the requirement to be applied in every case. “Mens rea” requirements have been of great use in the U.S. Justice system and should be upheld in laws, and used in every case because they are to prove the criminality and innocence of a suspect.
Fields, G. (2011). As Federal Crime List Grows, Threshold of Guilt Declines The Wall Street Journal. Web.
Lippman, M. R. (2010). Criminal procedure. London: SAGE.
Mens Rea. (n.d.). In Encyclopædia Britannica online. Web.
Traps, L.(2012). “Knowingly” Ignorant: Mens Rea Distribution in Federal Criminal Law After Flores-Figueroa. Columbia Law Review, 112(628), 628-664. Web.