MENS REA: Criminal Responsibility- State of Mind Requirement for Guiltiness by Adeyemi Oshunrinade



Crime is known to require both act and intent; the term mens rea is used in criminal law to denote “criminal responsibility” and thus means answerability to the criminal law. After all, no one should be answerable to the criminal law for crime not legally committed by him for to do so, is a miscarriage of justice.

The issue of mens rea as it applies in criminal law, often comes into place when in connection with consequences attributable to the accused within the rules of imputability. The fact that one is charged with a crime and sentenced does not mean the accused is answerable to the crime. Crime requires both act and intent; therefore, one who acts without the intent to achieve the end result may be exculpated for lack of the required mens rea to commit the crime.

The term “intent” as in criminal law is different from “intention.” To establish guiltiness in criminal law, there must be a union or joint operation of both act and intent; in essence, to be guilty and responsible for a crime, the accused must be blameworthy. In the early days of the development of Common Law Crimes, judges have declared some conduct to be criminal even though, such conduct lack the required state of mind; meaning the accused is made to pay for the conduct even when the bad or evil state of mind required is missing.

Since the 1600s, the judges have defined common law crimes to include besides the prescribed action or omission some prescribed bad or evil state of mind. The basic premise is that for criminal liability to stand, some mens rea is required. This notion is expressed by the Latin Maxim actus not facit reum nisi mens sit rea meaning [an act does not make one guilty unless his mind is guilty].

Some words and phrases are used by judges to express the required state of mind necessary to commit a crime; such phrases include “maliciously” [as in the cases of murder, arson, and criminal mischief], “fraudulently” [as in cases of forgery], “feloniously” [as in the crime of larceny], “willfully” [usually in perjury cases], and “with intent” [as with intent to commit a robbery or with intent to steal].

Most crimes today are statutory crimes and most jurisdictions of the United States have abolished the common law and have stated the common law crimes in the form of statutory laws. Since every crime is made up of both the physical part and the mental part, both parts must act in concord for the defendant to be blameworthy and the union of both parts is required for conviction of crime. The guilty deed must be in agreement with the guilty mind to be blameworthy.

If the prosecution can prove the existence of the physical part of the crime charged, and that this action is attributable to the defendant within the legal rules of imputability, then the prosecution has established his actus reus. Also if the prosecution can prove that in doing what he did the defendant’s state of mind was one which satisfies the requirements of the mental element of the crime charged, then his mens rea has been established. The combination of both as a unit constitutes criminal guilt.

The mental element of a crime is sometimes referred to as a [general state of mind] common to all crimes; however, additional mental element may be required for some specific crimes. For example, a 7-year-old who commits murder may be too young to have the state of mind or mental element, required for the crime of murder and therefore, not blameworthy.

This means that for mens rea, the mind of the individual must not be too young. Also for mens rea purposes, the defendant must have a complete state of mind; one with a diminished capacity or with a greatly disturbed faculty may lack the required state of mind and therefore, not blameworthy as charged.

To establish the required mens rea, every mental pattern which contains any factor sufficient in law to exculpate the defendant must be excluded or else the defendant lacks the required state of mind to commit the crime; If after exclusion of such factors the required intent to commit the offense is found to be present, then the case is that of a “general mens rea.” For some crimes, criminal negligence may be substituted for the required intent to commit the offense.

In essence to establish mens rea, there must be lacking any factor sufficient enough to exculpate the defendant. Besides this requirement, there must also be the intent to do the deed known as the actus reus of the offense charged; or else, there must be some other mental state recognized as substitute such as criminal negligence as earlier indicated.

Once the mens rea and the actus reus are established, the defendant is said to possess the “general intent” or the “general criminal intent” common to all crimes. This is sufficient to establish guiltiness such that the defendant is blameworthy for the proscribed crime.

The actus reus required for one crime differs from another; for example, the crime of burglary requires that the defendant break into the dwelling of another at night; for the crime of murder, the actus reus is homicide known as the unlawful killing of another with malice aforethought, meaning that for the defendant to commit the crime of murder, a homicide must have taken place.

On the other hand, the mens rea required for a Common-law burglary is the intent to commit a felony; and for the crime of battery no more is required than the “general intent” which may be substituted with criminal negligence.

To determine the establishment of mens rea it is essential to see the state of mind of the defendant as well as the crime with which he is charged; however, also important is that the actus reus and the mens rea must act in concord to find the defendant guilty.

Dr. Adeyemi Oshunrinade is an expert in general law, foreign relations, and the United Nation; He is the author of ‘Murder of Diplomacy’ (2010) and ‘Wills Law and Contests’ (2011) Mens Rea is an excerpt from his soon to be published book titled ‘Criminal Law- Homicide.’



Categories: Criminal Law

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