What is Mens Rea?

Federal and state laws, as well as local ordinances, establish conduct that is considered criminal activity or infractions. Laws and ordinances establish different requirements associated with crimes and infractions. Some crimes in the United States on the federal, state, and local levels require the presence of a certain type of mental state in order for an individual to be found guilty of those crimes. Mens rea is a demonstrable requirement in certain types of criminal charges. This leads to the question of what is mens rea?

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Essential Definition of Mens Rea

Coming to an understanding of mens rea begins with considering a basic definition of the term. In order to really understand what is meant by mens rea, considerations of its application and history are vital

The essential definition of mens rea involves criminal intent, according to Cornell University Law School. Mens rea is the state of mind required to convict a criminal defendant of a specific crime. In a criminal case in the United States, the presence of a particular state of mind or mens rea must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in order for a person to be convicted of certain crimes.

What is Mens Rea

Examples of Crimes that Require Mens Rea of a Criminal Intent

The different types of homicide exemplify when mens rea is an issue in charging a person with a particular crime. First-degree murder requires a person to have mens rea. A person can only be found guilty of first degree murder if a demonstration is made that he or she had the requisite mens rea. A demonstration must be made that an individual the perpetrator of a particular death intended for the victim to die and premeditated the conduct that resulted in the victim’s demise.

History of Mens Rea

In the United States, mens rea or specific criminal intent was based on English common law. Many components of U.S. law have direct antecedents to English common law.

By the 1950s and into the 1960s in the United States, a great deal of concern was expressed by legislators and others in states across the country about what they perceived as vagueness with the concept of mens rea. As a result, the Model Penal Code came into being. The Model Penal Code ultimately was adopted in one form or another in states across the country. The various derivations of the Model Penal Code explicitly set forth the specific intent or frame of mind, the mens rea, that was needed to be found guilty of a particular crime.

Mental Illness and Mens Rea

One way in which a person can be found lacking mens rea needed to be found guilty of a crime that requires specific intent is to be adjudged not guilty by reason of insanity. This doesn’t simply mean a person is mentally ill. Rather, a person must be suffering from a mental disease or defect so significant that he or she is incapable of forming the specific intent or mens rea needed to be found guilty of a particular crime.

In conclusion, mens rea is contrasted with actus rea. While mens rea is criminal intent actus rea is the physical act or conduct that resulted in the commission of a crime.