Michigan’s criminal justice system would benefit from a standardization of the application of mens rea requirements. The lack of a clear mens rea provision in criminal statutes provides inadequate guidance to prosecutors and judges and can result in inconsistent interpretation by the courts. The criminal justice system is taxed with the time and expense of litigating questions of legislative intent when a statute is unclear or poorly drafted.
The proliferation of strict-liability crimes has been addressed, in part, by the Model Penal Code. The MPC was developed in 1962 by the American Law Institute, a nonprofit that assists legislatures in evaluating, modernizing and standardizing their criminal codes. As it relates to the element of intent in criminal cases, one of the MPC’s important contributions was to standardize the levels of culpability into four states of mind: “purposely,” “knowingly,” “recklessly” and “negligently.”
These states of culpability are defined in the MPC as follows:
- Purposely: “A person acts purposely … when … it is his conscious object” to engage in specific conduct or to cause a specific result.
- Knowingly: “A person acts knowingly … when … he is aware that it is practically certain that his conduct will cause” a specific result.
- Recklessly: “A person acts recklessly … when he consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk” that his conduct will produce a specific result. “The risk … involves a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a law-abiding person would observe in the actor’s situation.”
- Negligently: “A person acts negligently … when he should be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk ... will result from his conduct. The risk must be … a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the actor’s situation.”
In addition to defining culpable states of mind, the MPC prescribes a default culpability as when “a person acts purposely, knowingly or recklessly with respect [to the offense].” If a statute is silent on the intent required to establish a criminal offense, MPC recommends using the default culpability provision. Legislatures are still capable of adopting statutes that impose strict liability for certain crimes, but would need to do so explicitly. Fourteen states have adopted a default mens rea provision modeled on or similar to MPC’s. In addition to the MPC’s standards of culpability, the American Legislative Exchange Council has published model legislation that codifies default rules of application for criminal intent (see Appendix B).
The Michigan Legislature should expressly affirm the fundamental importance of mens rea and should adopt a default mens rea provision to apply to statutes that fail to clearly define the intent required for a criminal conviction. If a statute is silent on the requisite state of mind to establish a crime, the default mens rea provision would be incorporated. The Legislature would be free to adopt new public welfare offenses, but would need to explicitly state its intent to do so.