Legalese — Mens Rea

Mens Rea is one of my favorite Latin legal terms.  It means, literally, “criminal mind.”  That’s such a great image – it brings forth a picture of a brain that is itself criminal, wearing black and white stripes and a Hamburglar mask and a skull cap.  But that’s not what it means in a legal context.  It means that you had an actual, thought-out intent to do criminal mischief.

Some crimes require mens rea and some crimes don’t. Let me explain. 

You can’t murder someone by accident.  You have to have mens rea for the crime to rise to the level of murder.  You have to want them dead.  That doesn’t mean, necessarily, that you have formed the exact words in your head, “I would very much like for this person to cease living.”  Although the prosecutor has the burden of proof – and therefore has to prove that you have mens rea – they will never be able to prove what was going on in your head.  As a result, it is presumed that you mean the “natural and probable consequences of your actions.” 

So what does the “natural and probable consequences of your actions” mean?  Well, let’s say you didn’t intend to break Johnny’s nose, but you did intend to punch him squarely in the middle of his face.  A natural and probable consequence of punching Johnny squarely in the middle of his face is that his nose, located in the middle of his face, will break.  As a result, Johnny’s nose swelled up to the size of a lemon and his eyes were blackened for the better part of two weeks.  He looked rough and couldn’t breathe through his nose.  So while you may have thought you were just committing simple battery (a harmful or offensive touching) you were actually committing aggravated battery (by rendering a part of Johnny’s body useless or by seriously disfiguring his body or part of his body.)

You can, however, commit manslaughter by accident.  Involuntary manslaughter is an accident with horrible consequences. Let’s say you are out deer hunting and you see a movement in the woods that looks like an amazing 12-point deer.  You aim, pull the trigger, and BAM, down goes Earl, your hunting buddy who was wearing that unfortunate hat with the beer cans on top and the straws.  Earl should have been wearing a vest, and he shouldn’t have been wearing that hat, but you tell that to Earl’s widow who is insisting that you be prosecuted.    

It doesn’t matter if you intend to speed or run a stop sign.  There is no mens rea requirement there.  It does matter if you intend to be cruel to an animal to be convicted of ‘cruelty to animals’, otherwise a vet would be convicted every time she reset a puppy’s broken leg or put a sick animal to sleep.  It doesn’t matter if you intend to have a weapon on school grounds – the legislature and courts have decided that introducing a weapon on school grounds is so dangerous that it doesn’t matter if you accidentally left it in your backpack from the weekend camping trip.  It does matter if you intend to commit a theft or a felony if you enter a building to be convicted of burglary. It can be confusing and it isn’t always obvious which is and isn’t an offense which requires mens rea for conviction.  It can also vary from state to state – and from year to year if the legislature (or court) changes its collective mind.  As always, if you want to know for sure, ask a lawyer.

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice. It is being offered for informational purposes only.

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