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Criminal Intent: A Primer

A fundamental element in any crime is the mental state of the defendant at the time the crime was committed. The legal term for this is mens rea, which is Latin for “guilty mind.” What follows is an examination of mens rea and what it means for you if you’re facing a criminal charge in Florida.

Negligence

The term “negligence” has different meanings in the law depending upon whether it is used in a criminal or a civil law setting. Negligence for purposes of civil law is typically understood as carelessness, but some criminal statutes use the mens rea of “reckless negligence,” such as in cases where dangerous objects are left out and available for members of the public and another person is injured as a result.

Unintentional

One aspect of mens rea that may defeat a criminal charge is unintentionally violating a criminal statute. For instance, a defendant may have intended to sell a legal substance like powdered sugar. However, if upon arrest police discover that the powdered sugar was actually cocaine, but the defendant genuinely believed it to be powdered sugar, the defendant has made a mistake of fact and has therefore not developed sufficient mens rea to sustain a conviction for selling cocaine.

Although mistake of fact may serve as a defense in many instances, mistake of law is not a defense in any case. If that same defendant was selling cocaine but genuinely did not know that doing so was illegal, he or she has indeed made a mistake of law, but, as the saying goes, “ignorance of the law is no excuse.”

Knowingly

A great deal of criminal statutes in Florida require that a crime be committed knowingly. For instance, if a defendant brings into Florida a package full of cocaine but genuinely believes that the package is full of powdered sugar, the defendant did not knowingly violate Florida’s law against trafficking cocaine.

Maliciously And Willfully

In some crimes, like murder, the type of mens rea determines the level of severity of the crime. For instance, intentionally killing another not in self defense is murder, but doing so in the heat of passion is a lesser degree of murder than doing so with malicious intent.

Specific Intent

Some crimes in Florida require an intent to do something beyond the immediate action of the crime. For instance, in crimes like theft, the defendant must not only have intended to commit the actual taking, but he or she must also have intended to permanently deprive the owner of that object. If the defendant intended to only temporarily deprive the owner of possession, the defendant would not have had the specific intent necessary to sustain a conviction.

Strict Liability

For a few crimes in Florida, no intent is necessary at all. One of the more notable examples of this is for the crime of statutory rape. Regardless of the intent of the defendant and his or her honest beliefs, a conviction for statutory rape will be sustained regardless.

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