Criminal Defense Basics: What Is Mens Rea?

Posted on by New Mexico Criminal Law Offices

New Mexico Aggressive Criminal Defense Attorneys

Criminal Defense BasicsMens rea is a Latin term for “guilty mind.” It was established in English courts in the 13th Century to address the mental element of a criminal act. Before mens rea was formed, a defendant could be found guilty of a crime based on physical conduct.

The concept was developed to prevent this from happening, and ensure a person was not convicted of a crime if they had what the courts believed to be an “innocent” mind. Mens rea addresses the defendant’s intent, and without intent to commit a crime, they may not be guilty of that crime.

Mens rea goes by many names in the courtroom, including actus reus, criminal intent, intent, and motive. Therefore, while you might not hear the term “mens rea” used, any of these terms apply to the same legal theory.

How Does Mens Rea Work in an Albuquerque Criminal Case?

Mens rea allows the system to decide whether a person meant to commit the crime or did not intend to commit the crime.

For example, two motorists kill a pedestrian. The first driver never saw the pedestrian until it was too late to act. While they tried to brake and maneuver away, they still struck that pedestrian and killed them. While that motorist is liable for the death, they are only responsible in civil court, because they did not intentionally kill the individual.

The second motorist, on the other hand, was looking for the pedestrian. Once the pedestrian was sighted, the driver sped into that pedestrian and struck them. In this instance, mens rea applies, because the individual had a guilty mind and the intent to kill the pedestrian on sight.

Carelessness and Criminal Intent Are Two Different Things

When a person is careless, they are negligent. But careless negligence is typically the result of an oversight and often results in only civil liability (money damages). Criminal negligence can result from gross negligence (that rises above mere oversight) and seems intentional – or almost intentional.

Take an example of a homeowner who fails to salt or remove snow from their sidewalk. Someone is hurt in this instance, but it is mere negligence. While that person can sue the homeowner for negligence in civil court – it is unlikely that police would be involved or that the defendant would face any criminal charges.

By contrast, there are cases where negligence rises to the level of criminal liability. Criminal statutes today have a lower threshold for when negligence crosses the line between civil liability and criminal prosecution. Gross or reckless negligence, for example, can result in a criminal charge.

When Does Mens Rea Apply?

Determining when mens rea applies to a case comes down to the statute involved. If the statute states that the defendant’s mental state or offense requires mens rea – or intent – then the court will use the defendant’s mental state and compare that to the elements of the crime to determine the appropriate charges.

Sometimes the statute might leave out the mental state; therefore, the court will require that the prosecution prove that the defendant still had a guilty state of mind during the crime to receive the higher charge.

A person’s mental state is typically organized by their level of blame in the crime – and assessing their mental state and the severity of the criminal act. A higher level of responsibility would correlate with a more severe crime; thus, harsher sentences.

The Four Classifications of Mens Rea

There are four classifications for a person’s state of mind at the time they commit a crime, which include:

  • Acting on Purpose – In this instance, the defendant knew what they were doing and purposely set out to commit the crime. For example, in a homicide the defendant brought the weapon used with the intent of using it to kill another person.
  • Acting Knowingly – In this instance, the defendant knew with a reasonable or practical amount of certainty that his or her acts would lead to a particularly harmful result.
  • Acting Recklessly – A defendant acted with blatant disregard to the risk of injury or death to others.
  • Acting Negligently – The defendant was unaware of the risks but should have reasonably been aware of those risks to avoid injury or death to another person.

A crime committed on purpose carries a harsher punishment, because the defendant knew he or she was doing something wrong, disregarded that, and purposely set out to harm or kill another person. Acting knowingly would also carry a harsher penalty than reckless or negligent behavior, but not as harsh as purposeful behavior.

Some statutes use a fifth category known as strict liability. In strict liability cases, a person does not need a guilty state of mind; instead, committing the crime is enough to satisfy any requirement of the defendant’s mental state. In these cases, the prosecution must establish that the defendant committed the crime. Some cases that fall under the strict liability area include statutory rape or possession.

The Malice Distinction

Some states no longer use the classifications of mens rea but instead, use the malice distinction. In New Mexico, malice distinction is used over mens rea, because it simplifies determining one’s state of mind. To determine if a person is liable for a criminal act, the courts will determine whether the defendant had one of two malice distinctions:

  1. Express Malice – During the crime, the defendant had a deliberate intent to cause harm to the victim. They planned the act or knowingly approached their victim with the intent of harming or killing them.
  2. Implied Malice – In this instance, the defendant was indifferent to the harm or death a victim might suffer, and they were inattentive or careless at the time.

Arrested for a Crime? Speak with a NM Criminal Defense Attorney

If you have been arrested for a crime, you need an attorney that understands the numerous legal theories used to prosecute your case. Schedule a free case evaluation now with an attorney from New Mexico Criminal Law Offices at 505-375-4763 or by contacting us online.