How Defendants’ Mental States Affect Their Responsibility for a Crime

Updated on November 29, 2022

Most of us believe that we know what is a crime and what is not. That means we also believe that we have the knowledge of when a person is responsible for a crime and when they are not. However, the law has certain specific standards of what constitutes a crime as well as how the perpetrators’ mental state contributes to their responsibility for the alleged crime. In other words, the mental state of the defendant at the time they committed the illegal act is an important part of determining whether they are responsible for the crime.

Their mental state does not necessarily have anything to do with their level of sanity, but rather their intent; put simply, did they intend to commit a criminal act or not? It can be a complicated legal question in some cases and defense lawyers will often try to make the argument that their client did not intend to commit a crime while the prosecution will argue the opposite. While some situations can be ambiguous, there are others where there is a clear demarcation between whether the defendant intentionally committed a crime or not. That is why and other attorneys recommend that anyone who is accused of a crime contact an attorney as soon as possible before speaking to the police.

It is useful especially if you are accused of violating the law, protective order defense attorneys can easily get you out of the situation.

How The Legal System Defines a Criminal Act

Generally, a criminal act is when someone intentionally does something that the state or Congress has determined is wrong. That intentionality is called criminal intent and its legal term is mens rea, which is Latin for guilty mind. The concept of mens rea means that people should only be punished when they behave in a way that is worthy of moral blame. From a legal perspective, people who intentionally commit criminal acts are worthy of moral blame and therefore should be punished.

Intentional vs Unintentional Acts

This is a big argument when it comes to determining a person’s guilt or responsibility for a criminal act. One of the most common and extreme examples is the comparison of the crimes of murder or manslaughter. Both involve the death of someone at the hands of another, but in the case of murder, the person intentionally set out to kill someone else. Whereas, in the case of manslaughter, the killing was accidental, which is why it usually has a lighter sentence than murder.

Accidental acts that are due to an ordinary level of carelessness are not considered to be a crime. An ordinary level of carelessness would be most acts that fall under the personal injury umbrella. That would include acts like a store owner not cleaning up a spill that causes someone to slip and hurt themself. That would be considered a careless act but not a criminal one. 

Acts that have a higher than normal level of carelessness could meet the mens rea requirement. For example, a person who drives recklessly by speeding and ignoring all the traffic signs and signals and ends up causing an injury accident could be accused of criminal behaviour even if they never intended to hurt someone. That is because careless behaviour can become a crime when it displays a reckless disregard for the safety of others. However, it is usually up to the discretion of a judge and jury to decide if a careless act is also a criminal one.

Mistake of Fact and Mistake of Law

It is also necessary to find out whether someone knew that they were engaging in a crime before they can be accused of a criminal act. The reason is that some laws only punish people if they knowingly committed an act that was illegal. This can sometimes come down to a mistake of fact or a mistake of law. A mistake of fact is when someone unintentionally commits an illegal act due to a mistaken belief. 

For example, if someone goes bike riding, parks their bicycle, and then comes back and takes their bicycle and rides it home only to discover that they had taken a similar looking bicycle that is not theirs, then they cannot reasonably be accused of theft. The reason is that they had the mistaken belief that the bike belonged to them. As long as the mistake was reasonable, the person who committed it can avoid being accused of a crime.

A mistake of law is when someone does not realize that what they are doing is illegal. This is not always a valid defense since many people have no doubt heard the phrase, “ignorance of the law is not an excuse.” That means that a person is still guilty even if they were unaware of the law that they broke. There are rare cases, usually involving relatively minor crimes, such as obscure traffic violations, where the mistake of law defense can be successful, but in most cases a person is guilty of breaking the law whether they were aware of the law or not.

The Role of Intent in Criminal Cases

As you can see, intent is a big part of whether a person’s mental state affects their responsibility for a crime and intent can be classified in different ways under the law. In some criminal statutes, for example, the defendant must have exhibited willful or malicious behaviour to be accused of a crime. Malicious or willful in some cases, means that not only did the defendant act intentionally, but that they also intended to break the law. This is one of the times where ignorance of the law can be an excuse since a person might not have had a malicious intent when they committed an illegal act.

There are also crimes with specific intent laws, which require that the government has to not only prove that a person acted knowingly when they committed a crime, but that they had a specific intent when they did so. An example is the law regarding theft; the government has to prove that a person took property with the intent of permanently depriving someone of that property. So the accidental bicycle theft described earlier would not count as specific intent, but someone who intentionally stole a bike with the intent of keeping it or selling it to someone else would qualify as having a specific intent. That would meet the mens rea requirement for a crime.

Motive sometimes plays a part in determining whether a person intended to commit a crime or not. If a person had a clear motive to commit a crime, then a prosecuting attorney could argue that they meet the mens rea requirement. However, if a person has no clear motive, then it could be argued that they were unaware that what they did was against the law since they had no clear reason for doing it as long as the crime they committed was relatively minor in nature.

Strict Liability Laws

There are some laws that do not require mens rea and they are known as strict liability laws. These laws punish people even if the acts that they committed were unintentional.The justification for strict liability laws is that enforcing them is in the interest of the public good even if the perpetrator of the crime had no ill intent. An example is statutory rape, which is when an adult engages in a sexual act with someone who is under the age of consent. Even if the adult did not realize that the other person was a minor, they can still be charged with statutory rape. 

The act of selling alcohol to minors is also a strict liability law, meaning that a person who does so can be accused of an illegal act even if they truly believed that they were selling alcohol to someone of legal drinking age. Strict liability laws can be controversial since the person who committed the crime might be morally innocent and also because a minor might lie about their age and even create a fake ID to enforce that lie. That means that technically they are also guilty, but nevertheless the law states that even if the defendant lacked mens rea, they can still be found guilty.

The Editorial Team at Healthcare Business Today is made up of skilled healthcare writers and experts, led by our managing editor, Daniel Casciato, who has over 25 years of experience in healthcare writing. Since 1998, we have produced compelling and informative content for numerous publications, establishing ourselves as a trusted resource for health and wellness information. We offer readers access to fresh health, medicine, science, and technology developments and the latest in patient news, emphasizing how these developments affect our lives.