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New legislation looks at 'mens rea' in criminal justice: Part I

Most of us would consider ourselves law-abiding citizens. But can we be sure? By some estimates, there are approximately 4,500 or more crimes on the books, and that's just at the federal level. And because there is no central database (which would seem like a no-brainer), there is no way to definitively quantify the number of criminal statutes.

With so many potential ways to commit a crime, any of us could be criminals and not know it. This prompts a question that has long been debated in the criminal justice system: Should you be considered guilty by committing a certain act, even if you didn't know the law and had no criminal intent?

Historically, in the United States and elsewhere, crimes generally required two criteria. The first was committing the act itself. The second was a concept called "mens rea," which loosely translates as "guilty mind." In short, an act was considered a crime if it was illegal and if the person committing it knew the law and acted with criminal intent.

Intent is vitally important to discern for certain crimes. If you discharge a gun and kill someone, it obviously matters a great deal whether you did it on purpose or whether it was an accident. The consequence for the victim is the same either way, but your guilt or innocence under the law hinges on mens rea.

But there are many laws on the books that disregard intent or are silent on the issue of intent. For these offenses, ignorance of the law is generally not an acceptable defense. Should that be the case, though? If you are fined for parking in an area with a "no parking" sign, should it matter whether or not you saw the sign?

In late 2015, both houses of Congress introduced bills touted as mens rea reform. If passed, they could significantly change the standards by which federal crimes could be prosecuted in the United States.

Please check back next week as we continue this discussion.

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