What Does Mens Rea Mean in Law?


The terminology used in criminal law can be extremely confusing. The United States legal system is a direct descendant of the European system, which is why most of the terminology we use is Latin. One term often used in criminal law is “mens rea,” which refers to criminal intent or the criminal’s state of mind. 

So what does mens rea mean for you if you’ve been charged with a crime? In order for you to be charged with a crime, the prosecution is tasked with proving that you had the intent to commit the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. When you’re facing criminal charges, you need an attorney experienced in criminal law who can dismantle the evidence that the criminal prosecution is using against you. 

No matter what criminal charges you’re facing, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney who understands the criminal statutes and other criminal laws surrounding your charges. At Buda Law, former prosecuting attorney Andrew Buda knows precisely how the other side will work towards proving your guilt and will use that to create a strong defense. If you’ve been charged with a criminal offense, call a Tampa criminal defense attorney at Buda Law at (813) 322-2832 to discuss your case today.

Mens Rea Definition

Mens rea is the legal term used to describe a criminal’s state of mind or mental state at the time of a crime. Latin for “guilty mind,” this term is how the criminal justice system differentiates between individuals who set out to break the law and those that did not. For example, when a person commits burglary, they have the intent to deprive that person of their property. In murder cases, the mens rea is the intent to take a person’s life. In order for a person to be charged with a crime, the prosecution must prove that his or her actions show the necessary intent beyond a reasonable doubt.  

Mens Rea vs. Actus Reus

Proving the mental element behind a crime can be difficult, as no one truly knows the mental state of another person. As such, a second element must be met present in order to prove criminal liability. The defendant’s state of mind during the offense is important when establishing criminal liability and the illegal act itself, known as actus reas or “the guilty act.” In order to prove that a person committed a crime, the prosecution must prove that the defendant had the intent to commit a crime and that the defendant committed a criminal act. For example, in a murder case, the actus reus would be the physical act of killing someone. Meanwhile, for drug crimes, the actus reus would be the physical possession of an illegal substance. 

In criminal law, both actus reus and mens rea must be present for a person to be charged with a crime. However, there are some circumstances where a person can be guilty of a crime without mens rea. These are considered strict liability crimes and don’t require the defendant to have a guilty mental state at the time of the offense. An example of a strict liability crime is statutory rape. Regardless of whether the accused was aware of the victim’s age, they can still be charged according to the rules surrounding strict liability offenses. 

General Intent vs. Specific Intent Crime

To charge a person with a crime, the prosecution must prove the defendant committed an illegal act with intent. Generally, crimes are categorized under two types of intent: general intent and specific intent

General intent crimes are those where the defendant committed an illegal act but did not plan for the outcome of the illegal act. Criminal negligence or recklessness are typically categorized as general intent crimes. These crimes don’t focus as much on the result of the illegal act but that a person committed a physical act. Oftentimes, general intent does not even require that a person intended to commit an illegal act. An example of a general intent crime is driving under the influence. Regardless of the person’s mental state when they get behind the wheel, when they drive over the legal BAC limit to safely operate a car, they can be charged with a DUI. Another example of a general intent crime is battery. It doesn’t matter whether one person intended to harm another; all that needs to be proved is that the person intended to punch or hit the other person. General intent is easier to prove than specific intent because the prosecution must only confirm that the defendant knowingly committed an illegal act and that it was not an accident. 

Specific intent crimes are more complicated since they require both the commitment of the illegal act and proof that the act was done to achieve a particular outcome. When proving specific intent, the prosecutor will need to show that the defendant committed a crime with the sole purpose of harming another. The requisite mental state of the defendant is essential in any specific intent case. The defendant’s mental state cannot be assumed in specific crime cases; a motive must be attached to the crime. Types of specific intent crimes are burglary, robbery, and forgery. For example, if a person takes money from their employer, they’ve committed the specific intent crime of embezzlement because they knowingly stole money and did so for their own benefit. 

Types of Culpability Under the Model Penal Code

The American Law Institute created the Model Penal Code in 1962 in order to standardize criminal law throughout the United States. Since its inception, many states restructured their criminal codes to mirror those outlined in the Model Penal Code. Over the years, there has been much confusion surrounding the intent behind a criminal act. Since there were many disagreements when describing general and specific intent, many states rely on the Model Penal Code’s classifications for mental states or mentes reae

These types of mental states are ranked by severity. There are four categories of mental states: acting purposefully, knowingly, recklessly, and negligently. To be charged with a crime, the prosecution must prove that at least one type of mens rea occurred. 

Acting Purposely

This means an individual had intent to commit an illegal act. They deliberately chose to commit an act that is against the law. For example, if someone attacks another person and does so in order to cause them harm, they’ve acted with purpose and, therefore, intent. 

Acting Knowingly 

When someone commits a crime and knows it’s against the law but continues to do so, they’ve acted knowingly. Even though the act is illegal and can result in criminal charges, the person commits the crime anyways. An example of this is a person embezzling money. They know what they’re doing is illegal, but that doesn’t stop them from continuing the criminal act.  

Acting Recklessly

A person who acts recklessly disregards the safety of others and the risks of their actions. For example, individuals who drive while intoxicated act recklessly. While they may not intend to hurt anyone by their actions, they’re still taking a risk when driving while drunk or high. If that person hurts someone else, they have met the requirements to prove recklessness. 

Acting Negligently

A person is considered to be negligent when they fail to meet the reasonable standard of care that is expected. For example, if a person is in charge of the care of another and they fail to perform the standard of care, resulting in the harm or injury of that person or child, they’ve committed criminal negligence. 

Examples of Lack of Intent: When It Applies and When It Does Not

When arguing against certain criminal offenses, an experienced criminal defense attorney can disprove the prosecution’s allegations that the defendant acted with criminal intent. However, there are certain circumstances where lack of intent is not an arguable defense. A Tampa criminal defense attorney will be able to evaluate your case and provide an adequate defense strategy against your charges. In cases where lack of intent can be argued, Andrew Buda has experience providing the following defense strategies. 

  • Evidence: Your defense attorney can challenge the prosecution’s evidence that they’re using to prove mens rea. Examples of attacks disproving evidence may include the defense attorney questioning the expert witness’ credibility or showing inconsistencies within the evidence.
  • Alternative Theories: A defense attorney may present other explanations supporting the defendant’s actions that don’t include intent. Examples of this type of defense strategy would be arguing that they acted under duress or in self-defense. 
  • Expert Witnesses: Using an expert witness, the defense can argue the accused’s state of mind at the time of the crime and provide other reasons supporting their actions. 
  • No Burden of Proof: The defense can argue that the prosecution has failed to provide the necessary burden of proof. Without the burden of proof, the prosecution is unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person committed the crime with intent. 

While lack of intent can be used in some criminal cases, there are several criminal cases where lack of intent cannot apply. Lack of intent is not a justifiable excuse when using an “ignorance of the law” defense. Even if a person does not realize their act is illegal, they can still face criminal charges. Another scenario where lack of intent does not apply is strict liability offenses. The prosecuting attorney does not need to prove mens rea in strict liability cases, only that a person performed an action.  

How Prosecutors Prove Mens Rea

When proving intent in a criminal case, the prosecution can use several forms of evidence to strengthen their case, including:

  • Circumstantial Evidence: This type of evidence indirectly indicates that the accused had the intent to commit the crime, whether it was before, during, or after the crime was committed.
  • Direct Evidence: The evidence the prosecution has directly proves that the accused acted with intent when committing the crime. An example of direct evidence would be a statement the accused made admitting guilt. 
  • Expert Testimony: A prosecutor may bring in an expert witness to testify to the defendant’s mental state when the crime occurred. 
  • Motive: The prosecution may have evidence proving the accused had a motive to commit the crime, which supports the claim that they acted with intent.  

No matter what type of evidence the prosecution has proving mens rea, the defendant’s guilt is ultimately left up to the jury. The evidence the prosecutor brings against the defendant must be strong enough to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime they’ve been accused of. 

As a former prosecuting attorney, Andrew Buda knows exactly how the prosecution will work to prove mens rea. To counter the evidence the prosecution claims they have proving intent, Andrew Buda will understand what is necessary to refute that evidence and potentially reduce the charges against you or have them dropped or dismissed. 

What Does Mens Rea Mean in Law?

Using Lack of Criminal Intent As a Defense in Florida Criminal Cases

Criminal intent is a significant element in criminal law. Even if you believe the charges against you are solid and meet the burden of proof required by mens rea, you still have the right to obtain legal counsel to fight against the charges brought against you. When you’ve been charged with a crime in Tampa, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney representing you. 

With extensive experience on both sides of the courtroom, Tampa criminal defense attorney Andrew Buda knows precisely how the prosecution will work to prove your guilt. When looking for the best criminal defense team in Tampa, look no further than Buda Law. To discuss your case with a criminal defense attorney at our firm, call 813-322-2832 or reach out online today.