Mens Rea

A defendant must have a “guilty mind” or mens rea in order to be found guilty of a crime. Under the Common Law, the mens rea or the “guilty mind” was divided into four categories and the defendant’s mens rea must fall into one of these categories or else he cannot be guilty of an offense:

1.   Intentional – the defendant must have intended the conduct and the result of his conduct

  • Note: Transferred intent – if the defendant intended to kill A, and B jumps in front of him, the defendant’s intent to kill A transfers in his trial for the murder of B

2.   Knowledge – the defendant knew that the result was reasonably likely (focusing on the effect/result)

3.   Reckless –  willful and wanton (based on a reasonable person)

4.   Negligence – defendant did not exercise a standard of care that a reasonable person would have exercised in similar circumstances

The four categories above can be divided amongst specific intent crimes and general intent crimes:

  • Specific intent usually includes intentional and knowledge based crimes. For a specific intent crime, the mens rea will typically be written into the statute (i.e. intentionally)
  • General intent usually includes reckless and negligence based crimes. All that is required is that the defendant intended the conduct as opposed to the conduct and result.

The Modern Penal Code (MPC ) Section 2.02 tried to distinguish between the gray areas between the four categories by further defining Purposely in 2.02(2)(a), Knowingly in 2.02(2)(b), Recklessly in 2.02(2)(c), and Negligently in 2.02(2)(d). Here is the result of the changes:

1.   Purposely – essentially grouped conduct and result; looked at conduct and result as an either/or instead of and

2.   Knowingly – “high probability;” the focus is now on the conduct as well as the result;

3.   Reckless – “substantial and unjustifiable risk;” a conscious disregard that the result will occur (defendant does not know about the result); looks at the offense from the defendant’s (subjective) and reasonable person point of view

4.   Negligence – “should be aware;” objective standard that looks for justifiability


More Helpful Notes: Specific Intent Crimes List

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