Mental State and Florida Crimes

Every crime has two components which the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt in order to obtain a conviction of the defendant: the actus reus and the mens reaActus reus refers the thing or act itself, while mens rea, Latin for “guilty mind, is the defendant’s state of mind when engaging in the alleged criminal conduct. Mens rea and actus reus must exist simultaneously to establish criminal liability. Thinking about committing a crime without doing so is not punishable as a criminal act. Engaging in a prohibited act without the requisite criminal intent is also not punishable as a criminal act.

For years, criminal law distinguished the severity of homicide using terms like Murder in the First Degree for intentional or premeditated murder, Aggravated Manslaughter for reckless homicide, and Manslaughter for negligent homicide. Florida still uses these terms in its criminal code.

One of the major innovations of the Model Penal Code (MPC) is its use of standardized mens rea terms, or “culpability” in MPC terminology, to determine levels of mental states. Florida combines MPC with common law terminology. Under the MPC, there are four different levels of mens rea or mental states:

1) purposely,

2) knowingly,

3) recklessly, and

4) negligently.

“Purposely” involves a conscious objective to engage in the conduct or cause the result. “Knowingly” involves awareness or practical certainty that the result will occur. “Recklessly” describes the conscious disregard of a substantial and unjustifiable risk, such that its disregard involves a gross deviation from normal standards of conduct. “Negligently” describes a failure to be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk, such that the failure to perceive involves a gross deviation from the standard of conduct observed by a reasonable person. Again, these mental states must occur contemporaneously with some act or conduct.

Some criminal statutes require no mens rea or criminal state of mind and may be considered strict liability statutes. American jurisprudence generally frowns upon strict liability crimes. However, the Florida legislature has eliminated, at least in part, an element of mens rea from drug offenses, while still requiring proof of a defendant’s mens rea for almost all other serious criminal offenses.

If you have been charged with a criminal offense, call Alan Fowler, an experienced Florida Keys criminal defense attorney, for a consultation at 305.912.2516.