The Intent and Mental State Requirement in Criminal Cases
Usually, an act is considered a crime when the person committing it intended to do something that the state legislature or Congress considers wrong. In other words, in most cases, an act is regarded as a crime if the person committing it had criminal intent. Another word for criminal intent is “mens rea,” which when translated means “guilty mind.” This Latin term is a concept based on the belief that a person should not be punished for committing a particular act if their intentions were innocent. It is a concept based on a belief that a person should only be punished for engaging in behavior prohibited by law if they intentionally engaged in the behavior.
If you’re facing criminal charges, it is up to the prosecutor to prove mens rea. When trying to prove mens rea, the prosecution might present evidence showing that you had a motive to commit the crime. If that happens, you might try to defeat your charge by arguing that you did not have a motive to commit the crime. Nonetheless, you should know that motive is not always a required element of a crime.
Suppose you suffered memory loss after committing an act. Can you use that as a defense? No, you cannot because forgetting a crime does not mean you did not intend to commit it. However, memory loss can support an argument that you are not competent to stand trial.
Ordinary Negligence vs. Criminal Negligence
Ordinary negligence usually does not support a criminal conviction. For example, a careless driver who causes an accident will not be prosecuted in criminal court. Instead, they will be made to pay civil damages to the victim or the victim’s family. On the other hand, recklessness or criminal negligence, which can be referred to as “more-than-ordinary carelessness,” can amount to mens rea. If a person disregards a significant risk, even if they do not intend to cause harm, they may end up facing criminal liability. Usually, it’s up to the courts to decide if a person’s carelessness is serious enough to demonstrate mens rea.
Mistake of Fact vs. Mistake of Law
If an individual breaks the law because they honestly misperceive reality, that individual lacks mens rea. This is referred to as a “mistake of fact.” Such an individual may not be convicted of a crime. For example, suppose you sold cocaine to someone because you believed it was sugar. In such a case, you made a mistake of fact and lacked mens rea at the time you committed the act.
On the other hand, if an individual breaks the law because they did not know what they were doing was illegal, they will likely be convicted of the crime. This is referred to as a “mistake of law.” Usually, a “mistake of law” cannot negate mens rea.
Therefore, if you’re facing criminal charges, a mistake of fact may serve as a defense, whereas a mistake of law may not. When you use the defense of “mistake of fact,” you are generally saying that if you had correctly understood the circumstances, you likely would not have acted the way you did.
Contact a London Criminal Defense Attorney
Are you facing criminal charges and need legal representation? Do not hesitate to contact our skilled and dedicated London criminal defense attorneys at Cessna & George Law Firm at 606-770-5400.