What is Mens Rea?
Mens rea is a common law doctrine of law that is defined as the knowledge of a crime. Commonly it is referred to as "criminal intent," of a crime. It is the knowledge or mental element necessary to commit a crime. It has become common practice in America and Alabama that the lack of knowledge of a crime is not a defense and that mens rea really doesn't apply any longer in many instances. This excellent article goes over mens rea and the current problem in the American Criminal Justice System that has seemed to eliminate the intent or knowledge requirement for a crime.
Technically, mens rea is Latin for "Guilty Mind." What was the mindset of a criminal defendant at the time of a crime? This concept allows the criminal justice system, and hopefully prosecutors, to differentiate from those intentionally commit crimes and those who don't not intend to commit a crime. What's a real world example? Take Rape in the First Degree vs. Rape in the Second Degree in Alabama. Rape I in Alabama is intentional rape. A criminal defendant physically holds a person down and forcibly has sex without consent of the victim. Rape II on the other hand, in Alabama, is what used to be called Statutory Rape. Rape II in Alabama is simply having sex with someone under the age of consent even with their permission and is considered a strict liability crime. A strict liability crime is a crime committed without the "intent," or mens rea necessary to commit as crime. This means that a 17 year old who has consensual sex with a 15 year old in Alabama, in the same high school is technically guilty of Rape in the Second Degree, which is a Class B Felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison and registration as a sex offender for the rest of their lives. The 17 year old is guilty of rape in the second degree in Alabama even if he did not know the girl consenting to sex was under 16. 16 is the age of consent in Alabama. This is insane. This law gives no regard to the historical and logical aspect of mens rea and the idea that criminal culpability rests largely in the intent and knowledge of a crime. How can someone be as liable for a class b felony, face 20 years in prison, and lifetime registration as a sex offender for a crime with no victim?
There are Four Mens Rea Elements in Alabama Law
- Intentionally- Intentionally acting to cause the result proscribed by Alabama Statute
- Knowingly--A defendant acts knowingly with respect to act or circumstance proscribed by Statute
- Recklessly--A defendant acts recklessly when they act consciously disregards a substantial and unjustified risk. The act is a gross disregard for the reasonable standard of care
- Criminal Negligence-- Fails to perceive a unjustified risk
"Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."