Should Criminal Intent be Part of Justice Reform?

Posted On: December 31st, 2015 by Bradley J. Groene

Should it be legal to punish someone for a crime they did not realize was illegal? That question is at the heart of a proposed reform to the federal criminal code. In D.C., Congress continues to debate criminal intent reforms to the criminal justice process. The House Judiciary Committee has already passed the Criminal Code Improvement Act, which would require prosecutors in cases as wide-ranging as food tainting and corporate pollution to prove that defendants “knew, or had reason to believe, the conduct was unlawful” to that end.

This criminal intent standard, legally known as “mens rea,” is already a guiding legal principle, but it has not been necessary to prove in many corporate wrongdoing cases. The idea behind the reforms is that you must have knowledge or reasonable belief that something is illegal to be convicted of a crime—especially if the regulation or law broken is obscure.

Why The Debate Over Criminal Intent?

Many states, including here in Ohio, have already passed such laws in an attempt to distinguish whether a person acts negligently, recklessly, knowingly, intentionally or willfully when committing a crime—and mete out punishment accordingly. If passed at a federal level, a criminal intent law would do the same, thus making it impossible or at least more difficult to punish those violating the law accidentally or even simply just negligently.

Advocates for the law say that such language is necessary in order to protect a key tenet of our legal system. They go on to point out that with the long list of federal laws it is unfair to have a higher standard for laws that almost exclusively affect corporations. Support for such a bill is interestingly found on both sides of the aisle—and heavily supported by Koch Industries.

Still, criminal intent reforms to federal laws also have strong opposition in some places. Environmental groups point out that such reforms make it easy for polluters to simply claim ignorance and avoid prosecution for damages done, including some that can have a lasting impact on communities, such as oil spills. The Department of Justice has echoed such fears in a statement, warning that federal criminal intent reforms “create confusion and needless litigation, and significantly weaken, often unintentionally, countless federal statutes,” especially those designed to protect public welfare such as those that prosecute producers of tainted food and water.

Regardless of your opinion on these reforms, it may still be a while before a bill on such reforms ever comes to a vote. In the meantime, you can inform your representatives on your opinion. As it stands, however, criminal intent is already the law here in Ohio, so if you are accused of a crime, the prosecution must prove mens rea before you can be convicted. If you are accused of a crime, call the Cincinnati criminal defense attorneys at Luftman, Heck, and Associates right away at (513) 338-1890 for a free consultation on your case. Find out how a winning legal strategy can help you fight the charges against you.