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Understanding mens rea in California criminal cases

In California criminal cases, one of the elements the prosecution is generally required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt is the defendant’s mens rea. This is a Latin term for “guilty mind.” While a careless action may have resulted in harm to a person, carelessness generally falls under the civil law rather than under the criminal law.

Crimes may be intentional or unintentional acts. Those that are unintentional involve mistakes of the law. An example of a mistake of law is selling marijuana in a state in which a person believes it is legal to do so. Even if the person honestly believed selling the drug was legal, he or she might still be criminally prosecuted for doing so.

Strict liability crimes are a class of offenses that do not require a mens rea. This means a person’s intent or knowledge does not need to be proven. Rather, the fact that the offense happened is presumed to be reason enough for criminal prosecution. This type of offense is generally found in those involving minors, such as statutory rape matters. Even if a person believes that a minor is able to consent, the fact that the minor is too young to do so is considered enough to support a criminal prosecution.

A person who is charged with a crime may benefit by getting help from a criminal defense attorney. If there are issues regarding the defendant’s mens rea, the attorney may challenge that element in the criminal case. The lawyer may gather evidence supporting the fact that his or her client did not have the requisite state of mind to support a conviction at the time the incident occurred. The attorney may present this evidence to the prosecutor in an effort to secure a dismissal for his or her client.