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What is "mens rea" in a criminal defense?

In order to be convicted of a crime you are suspected of committing, specific elements related to that crime must be proven. This can be confusing for some defendants in Iowa, however, understanding this can help tremendously with a criminal defense. The prosecution will not only look at the actions completed or initiated by a defendant, but also evidence that could help depict what was going on in the suspected offender's mind at the time of the crime.

What is "mens rea" and how can it be used in a criminal defense? In Latin, mens rea means guilty mind. And in the realm of criminal law, it refers to what a defendant was thinking and what was intended when a specific or certain crime was committed. Mens rea is used in the criminal justice system to help differentiate between a person who did not mean to commit a crime and an individual who intentionally set out to commit a crime.

When assessing mens rea, certain details and components are looked at. Was a person being careless when the offense occurred? Or did a defendant intentionally seek to complete the criminal act? Evidence might prove that a person was careless rather than reckless. This could prove that negligence existed; however, it could help prove that intent was not involved.

Mens rea can also be viewed as a mechanism to assess whether an action was intentional or unintentional. If a harmful behavior was intentional, this will often be labeled a criminal act. However, if it was unintentional harmful behavior, this could be labeled either a mistake in fact or a mistake of law. It should be noted that if strict liability applies to a crime, mens rea is not a required element.

Being accused of a criminal offense, no matter the severity, is a serious situation. Thus, defendants should understand that they do have the opportunity to defend themselves. Initiating a strong criminal defense strategy could help a defendant avoid serious and harsh penalties by getting their charges reduced or dismissed altogether.

Source: Findlaw.com, "Mens Rea - A Defendant's Mental State," accessed June 24, 2017

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J. Dean Keegan and Thomas D. Farnsworth, Attorneys at Law
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