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US Criminal Law/Mens rea

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Mens rea

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Mens Rea ("guilty mind") is the mental aspect of a crime that describes the criminal defendant's state of mind. The Model Penal Code gives four mens rea categories:

  • purposely;
  • knowingly;
  • recklessly;
  • negligently.

While not used everywhere, those categories are typical. Some crimes (e.g. statutory rape) do not have a mens rea element because they are strict liability crimes.

Mens Rea (evil intent) is the mental aspect of a crime that describes the criminal defendant's necessary state of mind to constitute a conviction. There are:

  • Specific Intent (to commit the crime e.g. assault with intent to commit murder);
  • General Intent (most crimes - to do an act that constitutes a crime, a negligent act which leads to the commission of a crime - like speeding which leads to an accident which then results in death or injury to another);
  • Violation per se/no intent (such as driving (not recklessly or negligently) above a posted speed limit).

Transferred Malice

In both criminal and tort (civil wrong) law, when an intent to cause harm to one person results in harm to another person instead of the intended target, the law transfers the intent to the actual harm.

So, if Joe meant to kill James, but James ducked and Joe's bullet hits Sue, Joe can be charged with and found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the murder of Sue, though he intended to kill James.