July 18, 2024

Obligate Law

Professional Law Makers

Basic Ideas Behind American Law – Part Two – Liability

8 min read
Basic Ideas Behind American Law – Part Two – Liability

Actus reus-The criminal act, or “evil act.”

Mens rea-Criminal intent, or “evil mind.”

Attendant circumstance- The added element to a normally legal act that makes it illegal. It is legal to drive, but not with the attendant circumstance of being intoxicated.   

          In order to convict criminally, the prosecution must prove the defendant committed a criminal act (actus reus), and did so with criminal intent (mens rea).   If criminal intent is not present, there must be an attendant circumstance. For example, an intoxicated man may not have an evil intent when he drives his car; he just wants to get home. He is criminally liable without the mens rea, because he performed the actus reus (driving) of a crime, with an attendant circumstance (while intoxicated).

          Of course, it is impossible for the court or a jury to determine exactly what a defendant’s state of mind was at the time of the crime, so the court uses facts and circumstantial evidence to best infer the defendant’s intent. Enough circumstantial evidence can add up to criminal intent.

          The court uses presumption to promote order. Some presumptions are not rebuttable. A child under the age of 7 is presumed to be unable to form criminal intent (mens rea), and cannot be held criminally liable for any action. This presumption is not rebuttable. The prosecution can present evidence a 6 year old child who stabbed one of her playmates is a genius, ready to be admitted into Harvard, and the court will not change the presumption she was unable to form criminal intent. Other presumptions are rebuttable. The court presumes all defendants are innocent, but if the prosecution presents enough evidence to rebut the presumption of innocence beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant will be found guilty.  

          Because the human mind is complex, the law allows for different levels of mens rea, with decreasing levels of liability:

          Purposefully, intentionally, knowingly– the most culpable level of mens rea. The defendant acted with malice, and full knowledge he or she was committing a crime that would have a bad result. “Knowingly” is usually used to describe a crime with an attendant circumstance.

          Recklessly– The mid level of culpability. The defendant was aware that his behavior came with a risk, and did it anyway. For example; two drivers decide to drag race, reaching speeds of nearly 100 MPH on a city street. Along the way, a pedestrian is hit and killed. One, or both, of the drivers would likely be held recklessly responsible for the pedestrian’s death because any reasonable person would know driving down a city street at 100 MPH carried a risk. The risk has to be of such a nature a reasonable person would refrain from doing the act.      

          Negligence– The lowest level of liability. The defendant was not aware her behavior carried a risk, but should have been.   The line between reckless and negligence can be fuzzy, and the courts consider the circumstances to determine culpability. A professional child care worker who ignores a dangerous situation that leads to a child’s death would be held to a higher standard than an inexperienced babysitter. If the defendant was aware of the risk, he acted recklessly. If he was not aware of the risk, he is negligent. The standard the court uses is what a reasonable person would have perceived in the same situation.   

          Strict liability-This one may not seem fair, but sometimes, no one really did anything wrong (a well-cared for cable suddenly breaks and causes a death or injury), but a person is responsible because someone needs to make it right. This was brought about during the industrial revolution to protect the public, and is punishable by fines, instead of jail time.   

          A common thread throughout the court system is the idea of a “reasonable person,” and what he or she would do, infer, perceive, or not do. 

The crime of possession:

Actual Possession– The offender has a banned item on his person. 

Constructive Possession -banned items are in a place or thing that is under the offender’s control, but not on the offender’s person. 

Knowing Possession -The offender knows he or she possesses the banned item. A person does not have to know the item is banned or illegal; he just needs to know he possesses it. Most states require knowing possession in order for it to be criminal.

Mere possession A person does not know he or she possesses a banned item. Perhaps he accidentally grabbed the wrong jacket that had drugs in the pocket (or, that’s his defense, anyways). In North Dakota and Washington, mere possession is enough for a criminal charge.

          The principle of causation– the law holds a person accountable for the results of his or her conduct to varying degrees. 

          Factual cause– The “but for” clause.  If the defendant did not commit this act, that wouldn’t have happened. Consider the drag racing scenario. If the defendant did not drive down a busy street at 100 MPH, the death of the pedestrian would not have happened. The death was a direct result of the drag racing.

          Proximate cause– Is it fair to blame the defendant for the crime? His actions may have caused this, but how closely is it related? Let’s say the two men are drag racing down the street at 100 MPH when all of a sudden, a tire flies off one of the cars and crashes through a huge picture window, startling a barber who just happens to be shaving a customer’s neck with a straight blade razor. When the barber regains his composure and looks down, he realizes he has just taken the poor customers head halfway off. Are the drag racers responsible for the death? A reasonable person may have remotely foreseen that the tire would fly off, but would they then have further foreseen that the barber would get startled while holding the razor? If the harm is accidental enough, or far enough removed, there is no proximate cause, and the defendant cannot be found guilty. 

          By the way, the barber could not be found guilty, either, because he had no criminal intent. Even if the barber just found out this particular customer was sleeping with his wife, and police found a diary detailing how the barber planned to go to the victim’s house and shoot him in the head, the barber couldn’t be held liable for accidentally killing the man when the tire flew through the window. Although mens rea was there because the barber did intend to kill the victim, the barber did not commit the actus reus (though, technically, he did commit the actus reus of slicing the guy’s throat, he didn’t do it with evil intent), and cannot be held liable for what he may have thought, or hoped for.

          Intervening cause– something that interrupts the chain of events, or contributes to the results. Using the last example of the drag racing, the intervening causes would be: the flying tire, the shattering of the plate glass window, and the barber with the straight blade razor. This doesn’t always remove liability, though. If I have a party in which I serve alcohol to a bunch of teenagers, who then get into a car, speed down a winding road, and hit a tree, I am still liable for their deaths, even though there was the intervening cause of the speeding and the winding road.

          Ignorance of the law– this is not a defense. It doesn’t matter if you knew you were committing a crime, or not.   The court does not allow one person’s interpretation or moral judgment to trump those of the community. The law is the law for everyone, even if the defendant didn’t know his or her actions were criminal.

          Mistake of fact– this is a defense. Let’s say you have been sneaking your boyfriend/girlfriend into your bedroom at night, and he/she happens to go to the bathroom just as your mother is having a midnight snack in the kitchen. Your mother hears noises upstairs and brings a knife with her to investigate. When your lover opens the bathroom door, your mother stabs him/her in the chest.   Your friend has fallen victim to a mistake of fact. The fact was he/she had permission to be in the home, and your mother was mistaken when she assumed she was killing a robber. So, even though your friend’s parents will likely want their child’s killer punished, the court can’t hold your mother criminally responsible for the death.

          Odds and ends:

          Motive– A possible reason for an accused person to have committed the crime. Though the prosecution’s case may be stronger if it can show the defendant had a strong motive for committing the crime, the state does not have to prove motive in order to get a conviction. Sometimes, motive is clear, such as when a person stands to gain an outrageous amount of money upon the convenient death of another. Enough circumstantial evidence can add up to motive. For example; a wife is murdered, and the husband doesn’t stand to gain from a huge insurance policy, but he was having an affair, and the wife had spoken to a lawyer about divorce.   These pieces of circumstantial evidence can be used to infer motive.

          Premeditation– The forethought to commit the crime. Most people assume in order for a crime to be premeditated, the offender had to have planned it out for at least a span of time, but in truth, premeditation can last only a split second.   Take this scenario; my boyfriend and I are sitting in our living room enjoying a movie. I am in a great mood, snuggling in his arms, and all is well. All of a sudden, the lights go on next door, and there is my slutty neighbor parading around naked, as usual, for all the neighborhood to see. I reach over into the end table drawer beside the couch, grab the gun I keep there for protection, and shoot her between the eyes. I hadn’t planned on killing her before, but the two seconds it took me to open the drawer, pull out the gun, point, and pull the trigger, were two seconds premeditation and I am in a heap of trouble.

          Lesser included offense- Sometimes the state fails to prove all the aspects of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt, but the jury just knows the defendant was up to no good. It can decide to hold the defendant liable for a lesser included offense.

          Transferred intent–  When I went to shoot my slutty neighbor, my aim was so bad I accidentally shot through the next window and hit her grandmother, who is innocently knitting in her rocking chair. I am not off the hook because I didn’t have the mens rea to shoot the grandmother. I had the mens rea to shoot someone at the time, so the law will transfer my intent from the neighbor to the grandmother.

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