The Federalist Society

Mens Rea in the Criminal Law: Current Trends

December 4, 2009

Marie Gryphon

Traditionally, a violation of the criminal law must consist both in “an evildoing hand” and an “evil-meaning mind.” The latter requirement is known among lawyers by the Latin term, “mens rea” which literally means “guilty mind.” Generally, this requirement meant that a defendant would only be found guilty of a crime if he acted with the intent to do harm, or at least with knowledge that harm would naturally follow from his or her voluntary action. Mens rea was considered an important limitation on the reach of the criminal law because, unlike the civil law, the criminal law carried a heavy social stigma and the possibility of imprisonment. It was, therefore, an appropriate tool for punishing only those whose conduct marked them as having “violated the basic social contract.”

Mens Rea in the Criminal Law: Current Trends  


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