The Impact A Defendant’s Cognitive Thoughts Has On Their Guilt In A Criminal Act

What causes an act to be considered a crime? For many cases, the defendant’s intentions are what make their actions a crime. The intention of an individual to commit a crime, or the knowledge that their action or lack thereof will likely result in a crime being committed – also known as “mens rea” – is a necessary element in many crimes. Mens rea is a Latin word with the meaning “guilty mind”.

The legal idea behind mens rea is the thought that individuals ought to be penalized solely for acting in a manner which causes them to be morally guilty. Within the view of the criminal justice system, individuals who purposefully act in a manner that is illegal based on the legal standards of the community are morally guilty.

Reckless Behavior


It is important to understand the difference between common careless behavior and reckless behavior. Typical careless behavior such as a negligent driver who caused an accident typically aren’t charged as a criminal act, although they will likely be required to compensate the people harmed in the accident through a civil award of damages. On the other hand, recklessness goes above a typical level of carelessness and raises the degree to mens rea. Generally, an act is considered to have risen to a level of criminally negligent behavior when the individual “recklessly disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk.” The criminal justice system relies on both a judge and jury to asses the defendant’s behavior in accordance with social principles in order to determine whether or not the careless behavior was severe enough to reach the level of mens rea.

Accidental vs. Intentional Behavior


Individuals who mistakenly participate in a criminal act could possibly be considered morally innocent; this is recognized as being a “mistake of fact”. An individual breaking a law when they genuinely misperceived a material fact to the case does not have mens rea and consequently shouldn’t be prosecuted for or found guilty of committing a criminal offense.

Even though a “mistake of fact” causes a person to lack mens rea, a “mistake of Law” generally does not eliminate mens rea. Even if an individual does not know their actions are against the law, as long as they purposefully carry out the action, they usually can be found guilty of committing a criminal offense. The reason for this can best be explained as if a “mistake of law” permitted individuals to avoid legal consequences, such a method would strongly encourage individuals to stay ignorant of the law.


Laws That Require A Defendant “Knowingly” Committed An Illegal Act


There are certain laws which only penalize individuals who “knowingly” participated in behavior that is against the law. What exactly the defendant is required to “know” in order to be convicted of such a crime varies based on the conduct the law is making illegal. A common example of laws which require “knowing” engagement in criminal activity are many drug laws. For example, one drug regulation prohibits an individual from “knowingly” bringing an unlawful substance in to the United States, while a different drug regulation prohibits an individual from selling drug paraphernalia when they know it is going to be utilized for producing or consuming an unlawful substance. For a defendant to be guilty of the first drug crime, they would be required to know the substance they were bringing in to the country was an unlawful substance, and for the defendant to be guilty of the second drug crime, they would need to know the person they provided the drug paraphernalia to was going to use it in an improper manner.

Specific Intent Laws


Laws which call for prosecutors to go beyond showing the defendant behaved purposely are known as specific intent laws. Under these types of laws, the government must provide evidence to show the defendant possessed a particular reason for committing the criminal act. An example of a specific intent law is a theft law that states the prosecutor must provide evidence that the defendant stole the property in question with the intention of forever depriving the owner of their property. For instance, an individual who takes someone else’s vehicle without the owner’s consent but brings the vehicle back within a couple of hours may only be able to be convicted of “joyriding” because they did not specifically intend to forever deprive the owner of their vehicle. But if an individual takes someone else’s vehicle without the owner’s consent and drives to the other side of the country, they most likely do not intend to bring the vehicle back to its owner and therefore possess the specific intent of permanently depriving the vehicle’s owner of their property that is needed to be convicted of the much more severe crime of motor vehicle theft.

The Function “Motive” Plays In Criminal Law


The word “motive” typically means the purpose driving an individual to break the law. For instance, an individual’s need to quickly acquire funds so they can cover a debt could be motive for committing a robbery, whereas getting retribution to a personal attack could be a motive for committing an assault. It is common for a prosecutor to use circumstantial evidence to show proof of motive in order to prove the defendant purposely or knowingly broke the law. A jury or judge is far more prone to think the defendant held mens rea when they can be assured the defendant possessed a reason to break the law. On the other hand, defendants often provide evidence to show they lacked motive and thus assert such lack of mens rea establishes a “reasonable doubt” of their guilt.

Strict Liability Laws Do Not Need To Prove Mens Rea


A law which does not need mens rea to find a defendant guilty are known as strict liability laws. Such laws allow an individual to be held accountable for a criminal action even though they might be morally innocent. Generally, strict liability laws are justified by claiming the community benefits of strict enforcement far surpasses any damages of penalizing an individual who could very well be morally innocent. An example of a strict liability law typically consists of laws relating to minors such as statutory rape or selling alcohol to a minor. Such strict liability laws discipline individuals even when they make a genuine error and who could still be considered morally innocent.

If you are facing any type of criminal charge, it is strongly recommended you contact an experienced Florida criminal defense attorney.


McGinn Law represents clients in Tampa, Brandon, and most surrounding areas. Your attorney, Michael McGinn, will bring experience, skill, knowledge, and determination to your criminal defense. With so much at stake, including imprisonment, fines, or any other type of criminal penalty, it is not worth the risk of self-representation. Hire the skilled representation of a criminal defense lawyer today.