What is mens rea, and why does it matter?

What is mens rea, and why does it matter?

After a crime is committed and you’re accused, one way your attorney can argue your case is to defend your mental state at the time of the incident.

Does a defendant’s mental state matter to the court? Absolutely. Most crimes that take place require “mens rea.” This term is Latin for a guilty mind. What that means is that the person who committed the crime must have intended to do so and known what it meant to do so. This simple phrase allows the justice system to determine a difference between those who commit crimes intentionally and unintentionally.

Here is an example of what it means to not understand a crime or to act unintentionally. A child walking into a grocery store may pick up a piece of fruit. If the child’s parent doesn’t notice, then he or she could walk out of the store having stolen that fruit. The child did not intend to steal and may not have known it was stealing to take the item. The parents may not have known the child had the item, so they weren’t aware of a theft taking place.

On the other hand, if a person walks into a grocery store and hides a bag of fruit in his or her jacket to try to get away with taking it, that person knows he or she is committing a crime.

The intentions in both these situations are different, even though the same thing occurred. What it comes down to is carelessness versus a criminal action. If you are able to prove that you were careless or unintentionally committed a crime, you may be able to receive a reduced penalty or none at all.

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