Mens Rea Reform At a Glance

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What You Need to Know

  • Mens rea, Latin for “guilty mind” is the legal term for the intention or knowledge of wrongdoing that constitutes part of a crime, as opposed to the action or conduct of the accused.
  • Currently there are a large number of levels of criminal culpability that can be used when charging someone with a crime, ranging from “negligently”, or “recklessly”, up to “willfully”, “knowingly”, and “criminal intent”.
  • This level of culpability becomes important in the case of crimes that are malum prohibitum (“Wrong because prohibited”, meaning crimes that are wrong only because Congress and regulatory bodies have stipulated so) as opposed to in the case of malum in se crimes (“Wrong in itself”, meanining crimes that are morally or objectively wrong i.e. arson, murder, fraud).
  • If one of these laws or statutes is violated, and if it does not specify the level of criminal culpability necessary to charge someone with a crime, the person may unfairly be charged for a crime they unknowingly or negligently committed.
  • Mens rea reform is the process of specifying a default level of criminal culpability in cases where a law or statute is silent on the necessary level for charging.
  • A default culpability standard of “criminal intent” should be used when deciding whether to charge an individual with a crime, as this standard protects the public and the rights of the individual to not unfairly be charged with a crime.