Mens Rea — The Guilty Mind

By Collin County Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal

(972) 369-0577

Here is some legal theory or law school 101 if you will.

Something every first-year law student learns in criminal law is about the concept of “Mens Rea” which is latin for “guilty mind.”  When a guilty mind is combined with a “guilty act” (or actus reus), then under common law, a crime has been committed. Most, but not all, crimes today have a mens rea requirement.

For example, to prove the crime of theft the prosecution must show the guilty act of appropriation of property (actus reus) plus the intent of the taker to deprive the owner of the property without consent (mens rea).  An example of a crime where there is no mens rea is strict liability crime — like statutory rape or what is known as an inchoate crime which is a crime of omission — like failure to stop and render aid.  Inchoate crimes typically require a special relationship between the victim and the accused. Modern criminal law has even varied the levels of mens rea.

Crimes enacted by code in Texas and the U.S. Government can require greater or lesser mental states for offenses.  Some offenses such as Arson are called specific intent crimes — meaning that the actor had to specifically intend the result of the crime.  Other crimes have lesser mental states meaning that if a person committed an offense “knowingly” or even less, with “criminal negligence” then they are guilty.

An example of a crime in Texas where criminal negligence is sufficient to convict is selling alcohol to  a minor.  In that type of a case, the actual intent of the defendant need not be proven as long as the jury believes the defendant acted with “criminal negligence.” The charging instrument (an information in a misdemeanor case or an indictment in a felony) will detail which of the mental states is being alleged.

Any and every criminal defense lawyer should read the charging instrument in your criminal case.  If the state proves the greater mental state then they have, as a matter of law, proved the lesser.

Discussing legal theory is like pulling the loose end of a sweater.  We could discuss this topic all day and all night.  If you’re interested in more discussion, you can read more here or here.

*Jeremy Rosenthal is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and licensed by the Supreme Court of Texas. Nothing in this article is intended to be legal advice.  For specific legal advice about your case you should consult an attorney. 

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: