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Mens Rea and the Four Levels of Intent

Mens Rea as defined by is the Latin term for “guilty mind” or “element of criminal responsibility.” Based on the fundamental principles of Criminal Law, there are two elements that consist of a crime, one is the physical element, and the other is the mental part. The mental element or the awareness of the illegal act is the mens rea. It is the guilty knowledge yet there is still willfulness to do the crime. On the other hand, the physical element is the act itself—actus reus.

"The act does not make a person guilty unless the mind is also guilty." Generally speaking, a person is not necessarily guilty unless there is a guilty mind behind the act; meaning there is intent to commit a crime. For instance, due to negligence or recklessness, a person accidentally knock out a pot of plant from his second-floor window and accidentally landed on the head of a passerby which caused that person severe injuries. In this case, there was no intent to cause harm, thus the person who knocked the pot by the given definition is not guilty of committing a crime (physical injuries). It is the intent of the person that makes his/her action a crime. However, if applied to legal law, mens rea is a bit vague by definition. Based on the given example, mens rea by definition makes the person unaccountable for his action although there is negligence on his part. Thus, it is also important to identify the levels of intent or levels of mens rea to identify the culpability of the person based on the elements of the crime.

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Four Levels of Intent

The first level of mens rea is intentionally. According to section 15.05(1) of the Penal Law, a person acts intentionally when the conscious objective of his actions is to “cause such result or to engage in such conduct.” In relation to the example used previously, if the person who put the pot of plant on his second-floor window placed it there so that when the person whom he wants to harm passes in front of the house, will give him the opportunity to drop the plant on his head and thus cause severe injuries to that person, then the level of mens rea is intentional—There is a conscious intent to cause injury by placing the pot of plant in the window for the opportune moment to drop it in the head of a specific person.

The second level of mens rea is knowingly. Knowingly is almost similar to intentionally in the sense that the person in question is aware that his actions would yield the expected offense yet it is different from intentionally in the sense that in knowingly committing a crime, there is an “awareness that the result is practically certain to result from such conduct”.

Third level of mens rea is recklessly. Recklessly happens when a person is aware of the probability of his action causing an offense yet still disregards the probabilities. Using the same example, a person puts the pot on his second-floor window despite knowing the hazards that it could cause physical injury to people passing by the house just in case the pot fell. In this case, there is no intent to commit a crime but his actions are considered reckless because he knew the probability yet disregards it.

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The fourth level of mens rea is criminal negligence. A person commits criminal negligence when “with respect to a result or to a circumstance described by a statute defining an offense when he fails to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk that such result will occur or that such circumstance exists." It is almost similar to recklessly but differs when a person failed to foresee the risks of his actions that a reasonable person would.


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