Conviction of Guilt Without Regard to Intent or State of Mind
In the criminal justice system, offenses are commonly categorized based on the state of mind of the perpetrator at the time of the act, and criminal statutes typically identify the state of mind required for a conviction. Most crimes require the prosecutor to prove that the defendant had either “general” intent or “specific” intent to commit a crime.
“General” intent crimes are those where the defendant intended to perform a particular act but did not necessarily intend for a certain result to occur. For example, DUI is a general intent crime because a person intends to drink alcohol but does not necessarily intend to drive drunk. “Specific” intent crimes are those where the defendant specifically intended to commit a particular criminal act, such as first-degree murder. Some crimes, however, do not require any intent, or even knowledge, on the part of the defendant.
Strict Liability in a Criminal Case
In limited circumstances, a person can be charged and convicted of a crime without the prosecutor needing to prove their state of mind. Such prosecutions are based on the legal principle of strict liability, a concept more often associated with personal injury claims such as dog bites or defective product cases.
With a strict liability offense, prosecutors do not need to show either general or specific intent to commit a crime. Strict liability crimes require the prosecution to show only that the defendant engaged in the legally prohibited activity.
What Are Common Strict Liability Crimes?
Laws establishing strict liability crimes vary from state to state, but generally include three types of offenses:
- Statutory Rape—The most well-known strict liability crime is statutory rape. Statutory rape laws typically require a prosecutor to show only that the perpetrator had sex with someone under a certain age. It does not matter whether the defendant honestly believed the minor was old enough to give legal consent.
- Sale of Alcohol to Minors—In states where selling alcohol to a minor is a strict liability offense, a person can be convicted even if the minor looked old enough to buy alcohol and provided what appeared to be an authentic drivers’ license or other form of identification.
- Traffic Offenses—In general, a prosecutor must show only that a person committed a traffic offense prohibited by the traffic laws. It does not matter whether the motorist knew they were breaking the law or had a good reason to do so. For example, if you are ticketed for going 72 in a 55-mile-per-hour zone, you can be convicted of speeding even if your speedometer gave you a false reading or you were rushing someone to the hospital.
Defenses to Strict Liability Crimes
There may be some defenses available to you if you are accused of a strict liability crime. Even though intent is not an issue, the prosecution must prove the other elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. A local criminal defense attorney can advise you on the best approach to defending your case.