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Criminal Cases

Intent and Strict Liability

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The following is not legal advice but is for information only. Legal advice is when an attorney applies the law to a person's individual circumstances and advises them on their legal options or potential exposure to legal harm, which a web page clearly does not.


Some criminal offenses require a 'criminal intent' or what's known in latin as mens rea. Others do not and you can simply be charged by doing something without any bad intent at all - or at least the government does not have to prove one.


Strict liability

Strict liability offenses only require that a person commits a prohibited act and no more. What they were thinking when they acted is irrelevant. Driving a vehicle with a revoked or suspended license (with notice that it is suspended) is enough. The same applies to driving while over the alcohol limit (operating under the influence) or with your ability to drive impaired in any way. The government does not have to prove an intent to drive while under the influence or while having a suspended or revoked license. Merely the act of driving alone is enough. These are known as strict liability offenses.

Criminal intent

In other circumstances, proof of intent is required and these will be mentioned in a statute. The types of intent in criminal law are:

Intentionally: This refers to a situation where a person acts with the specific purpose of committing a particular act. For example, a person who intentionally steals a car with the intent to keep it permanently is acting with intentional criminal intent.

Knowingly: This refers to a situation where a person knows it is practically certain that their actions will cause a result. For example, a person who sells drugs but claims to not know that the substance is illegal is acting with knowing criminal intent.

Recklessly: This refers to a situation where a person is aware that their actions create a substantial risk of harm, but they choose to act anyway. In statute that is consciously disregarding a risk caused by their conduct. This conscious disregard has to be a gross deviation from a fictional reasonable person in the same circumstances. For example, a person who drives while intoxicated and causes an accident is likely acting with reckless criminal intent. A common analogue used is swinging around a baseball bat and not caring who gets hit, or shooting a gun into a crowd without intending to shoot a particular person but not caring if someone does get shot.


Negligently: This refers to a situation where a person fails to take reasonable care to prevent harm to others. In statute that is a failure to be aware of the risk of a person's conduct to the point of being a gross deviation from the fictional reasonable person in the same circumstances. For example, a person who leaves a loaded gun within reach of a child is acting with negligent criminal intent. Criminal negligence is the lowest level of criminal intent.


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