What is Mens Rea?
Many people have heard the term “mens rea” at one point or another. Whether it was heard on a courtroom drama or in the classroom, mens rea is a familiar legal term. Despite this, many do not know what mens rea actually means. In a majority of the states, mens rea is a term that describes the particular state of mind that is encapsulated as an element of an offense. It is essential to proving that someone committed a crime.
Two Elements of a Crime
Most crimes have both mens rea and actus reus. Since mens rea is the mental element, actus reus is the physical action that accompanies a crime. In order to be convicted of a crime, both the mens rea and actus reus must be proven. If either is lacking, then the defendant will not likely be convicted.
There are a few exceptions for this, and those are crimes for which one is strictly liable. This means that there is no mens rea requirement in the statute. By simply committing the action, it is enough to warrant conviction. The most common example of strict liability in the criminal justice system is statutory rape. In most states, the intent of the defendant is not an element in determining guilty because the defendant can be held strictly liable for having sex with an underage minor.
Mens Rea Words
When reading a statute there are many words that indicate the presence of mens rea. Some examples are:
- Knowingly: substantially certain the action will occur
- Willfully: done with a bad purpose
- Malice: intentionally causes a social harm
- Recklessness: disregarded a substantial and unjustifiable risk of which he was aware
- Negligence: disregarded a risk as an ordinary person would not have
- Purposefully: conscious objective to engage in the conduct
While several of these words seem to have the same colloquial meaning, they each have a different legal definition that is drawn from either statute or common law. These subtle differences can make a big difference in a criminal case, as they are the key to either proving or defeating the adversarial side. That being said, many times a prosecutor will charge someone with a crime and all of the lesser-included offenses. These lesser-included offenses have different mens rea requirements so the defendant is likely to be convicted of something.
For more, look at this video below. You can also learn about the controversy of exclusion on this page.