How a Defendant's Mental State Affects Criminal Responsibility

Intent plays a key role in determining what constitutes a crime. Criminal intent is generally referred to as “mens rea,” which is Latin for “guilty mind.” This concept stems from society’s belief that someone should only be punished if they intentionally engage in behavior that is prohibited by law.

If a defendant did not intentionally engage in criminal behavior, this can be considered a “mistake of fact.” This means that someone had a mistaken understanding of the facts of a situation which resulted in that person committing an illegal act. Mistake of fact is a defense to a criminal charge since there was no criminal intent –mens rea — when the act was committed.

While a “mistake of fact” can be a defense, a “mistake of law” — where someone was not aware an act was illegal — is generally not a defense to a crime. If someone intentionally commits a criminal act, even if they did not know the act was a crime, they will usually be held liable for that crime.

Some laws punish only those who knowingly act illegally. For example, if a law makes it illegal for anyone to knowingly bring a drug into the U.S., a prosecutor would have to prove that a defendant knew that the drug he was bringing into the U.S. was illegal.

There are also laws that do not require mens rea, which are known as strict liability laws. One example of a strict liability law is statutory rape, where it is illegal to have sex with a minor even if a defendant believed that the underage person was old enough to consent. The reason for these laws is that society has determined the benefits of enforcement outweigh the harm of punishing someone who might be morally blameless.

Whether you are facing a serious federal white-collar prosecution, a state murder charge, or misdemeanor charges, The Cogdell Law Firm has the experience, knowledge and reputation you want for your legal team. When results matter most, contact Dan Cogdell at (713) 426-2244 or