Latin word, mens rea is a part of Latin legal axiom ‘Actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea’. This legal axiom means, act itself is not guilty unless accompanied by a guilty mind. Thus mens rea or guilty mind is a unique feature of criminal law and criminal act of a doer is not punishable unless the same is done with a guilty mind or criminal intention. This paper discusses mens rea along with several related aspects of the subject matter.
Sanford kadish recognizes the importance of mens rea in criminal law and says “the existence of mens rea shows that the criminal law regards people as autonomous agents who are responsible for the choices they make rather than robots which behave malfunctioned and need to be mended (Herring, 171)”. Eminent scholar Kadish, in his definition of mensa rea, gives a bigger message that a person who is being punished should know it very clearly what for he is being punished (Kadish, 391).
Mens rea is interpreted by different scholars and they have differences in their opinion about mens rea. Some believe in choice theory which says that people are responsible for their acts and that they choose to do. This theory believes that one should be held guilty only he or she does any act deliberately and with the involvement of actus reus (Herring, 173). Other theory is capacity theory which believes that one is liable for his chosen deeds and further adds that it is good to punish those people who were in capacity to do good but deliberately chosen not to do anything. Character theory talks about those who are alleged should be punished if proven guilty (Herring, 173).
Very rare are cases that suggest existence of Mens rea or it was ever exercised in ancient times by any society. A person who committed a crime had to face the punishment for his acts without considering what his intention was behind his act (Robinson, 9). Mens rea is an idea of modern civil societies that tries to inspect the intention of a person who committed a crime and if his intention was not guilty, the doer is not punished. Though Mens rea is probably most used defense by the lawyers of accused but at the same time it should be very cautiously exercised. Mens rea is highly confusing and if not used cautiously, criminals can take advantages of this unique component of criminal law (Robinson, 9).
Mens rea has been emerged as an important component of criminal law but it has always been interpreted by several in different ways. In Regina vs. prince defendant was accused of taking an underage girl out of her father’s possession against his will. Defendant pleaded that he was told by the girl that she was adult (Hall, 373). Conduct of Accused was prima facie was morally wrong and suffice for lord Bramwell to believe that there was Mens rea in the deeds of accused. While Lord bratt considered this act of accused only immoral but not criminal (Hall, 374).
Another interesting interpretation of Mens rea comes into Regina vs. Faulkner where the accused while trying to steal a bottle of wine set the ship on fire. Lord fitzgerald and lord pales suggested that accused should not be tried for burning ship (Robinson, 4). They opined that his actual intention was not to burn the ship and was merely to steal wine from the ship. It was suggested by lords to try the accused for stealing the bottle and not for burning the ship (Robinson, 4).
Such interpretations of mens rea created a number of complications and it became need of hour for lawmakers to make it clearer. Now there is no any set principle for mens rea and it is interpreted in every case differently depending upon facts and circumstances of the case. Same mens rea requirement is not applied in several different cases and the doer has to prove his innocence in every case and justify his part (Brody and Acker, 168). Mens rea is now examined in a very cautious manner and its presence or absence is examined at the time of committing the crime. If a person sets a bomb and later his mid is changed, he can not get the benefit of mens rea because his mind was changed, doer would be tried for the bomb blast. Now Law believes in judging the acts of doer rather than judging doer (Brody and Acker, 168).
Taking the defense of Mens rea is not absolute and it has several exceptions where it is not applied and doer of a deed is punished irrespective of his intention. In cases of Strict liability, recklessness and negligence mens rea stands idle and doer is punished for his acts irrespective of his guilty mind or not (Robinson, 5). Different people argue to exclude or include exceptions based on their own understandings of law but laws almost every nation recognizes these exceptions and their opinion about mens rea is also same (Robinson, 5).
Model penal code reads about different levels of culpability in these words “The purpose of articulating these distinctions in detail is to advance the clarity of draftsmanship in the delineation of the definitions of specific crimes, to provide a distinct framework against which those definitions may be tested, and to dispel the obscurity with which the culpability requirement is often treated when such concepts as ‘general criminal intent,’ ‘mens rea,’ ‘presumed intent,’ ‘malice,’ ‘wilfulness,’ ‘scienter’ and the like have been employed (Robinson, 11)”.
Highest rank of culpability under model penal code is intention. Intention has been given most importance because it ascertains and determines every act of people. It decides every aspect of any act whether legal or illegal (Herring, 6). Intention may be direct or indirect but its consequences would be same. Whether direct intention or indirect intentions, both have same effect if done with guilty mind and it is judged as per facts or circumstances of separate instances (Herring, 7).
The concept of mens rea is a good defense for several people but there also people who keeps opposing mens rea. They say that mens rea is a boon for lawyers and defendants who are rich can use this defense by t help of costly lawyers who are adroit in manipulating laws in their favor. One can always make hue and cry that his intention was right and the crime was committed in absence of guilty mind. People of such opinion should believe in law and competence of judges (Kadish, 393).
After having observed a complete analysis of the subject, it is good to conclude that mens rea has two aspects. One aspect suggests that it is boon for accused but on the other side we find it very helpful in deciding who is real guilty. Overall we are humans and not robots. If some wrong occurs without the intention of a man, he has every right to defend himself and punishing him would serve no purpose in furtherance of law.
David C. Brody, James R. Acker. Criminal Law. USA: Jones & Bartlett Publishers, 2011.
Hall, Jerome. General Principles of Criminal Law. New Jersey: The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd., 2005.
Herring, Jonathan. Criminal Law: Text, Cases, and Materials. Hampshire: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Kadish, S. "Reckless Complicity." Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1997): 391-394.
Robinson, Paul H. Mens Rea. Educational. USA, August 19, 1999.