Unit 11: Mens Rea (Statutory Interpretation)


  • There is no additional reading assignment for this class.  You should carefully review the readings from Unit 9 and Unit 10.

Advice on Statutory Interpretation:

Analyzing mens rea outside of the MPC poses some challenges.  You may encounter different forms of mens rea (offense level mens rea and element level mens rea) and non-standardized mens rea terms. Furthermore, there is not an easy rule like MPC 2.02, which provides that if an offense does not contain a mens rea term, then a mens rea of at least recklessness is required.

We will soon cover strict liability offenses.  See Unit 13.  When seeking to determine the mens rea in a criminal statute, you should remember that the absence of an express term does not necessarily mean strict liability.  Courts have identified several factors that usually (but not always) must be satisfied in order to overcome the presumption against strict liability.

You will also need to engage in statutory interpretation. First, look to the text of the statute to determine the statute’s “plain meaning”—it is possible that your analysis might end there.  If the “plain meaning” is unclear or would lead to absurd results, then consider other tools of interpretation, including but not limited to: dictionary definitions; canons of construction (such as the rule of lenity); legislative history (including the law before the statute); legislative purpose; and the ways in which earlier laws have been interpreted.  See Unit 6.

There are also some frequently used mens rea terms.  You should be aware of their most common meanings at common law:

  • Intent” most commonly encompasses both consciously desiring to cause the social harm or knowing with virtual certainty that the social harm will occur as a result of one’s actions.

  • Wilfulness” has several different meanings. Sometimes, it is used interchangeably with “intent.” Other times, it means that the actor had a bad purpose or an evil motive (an offense level mens rea rather than an elemental mens rea).

  • Malice” is more complex for homicide offenses, but for non-homicide offenses, malice usually means the actor acted intentionally or recklessly.

  • “Knowledge” generally means practical certainty or actual awareness.

  • Negligence” and “recklessness” usually have the same meaning as defined in the MPC.

In real life, you should always dig into the statutes and case law to ascertain the precise meaning of a mens rea term.  For purposes of our course, you can focus on these general categories (unless you see a statute that expressly includes a different term or definition).