New Policy Brief Recommends Reforms to Protect Individual Rights and Improve Clarity of Criminal Statutes

‘People can be charged, convicted and imprisoned for committing crimes without having any criminal intent’

For Immediate Release
Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013
Ted O'Neil
Media Relations Manager

MIDLAND — The Michigan Legislature should adopt a provision that would apply to all statutes that fail to clearly define the criminal intent required for a misdemeanor or felony conviction, according to a new policy brief issued jointly today by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

“Conviction of a crime traditionally requires a combination of a wrongful act and criminal intent,” says Michael J. Reitz, executive vice president and author of the policy brief. “But more and more Congress and state legislatures are using the criminal code for regulatory purposes. These public welfare offenses often omit the requirement for the prosecution to prove the existence of criminal intent.”

Reitz said that criminal intent has been a central question in Michigan criminal cases in prosecutions for things like murder, driving while intoxicated and violations of environmental laws, but it is common for the Legislature to omit intent provisions for lesser crimes that are regulatory in nature.

 “An inadequate definition of intent makes for a vague criminal code and can result in inconsistent application by prosecutors and the courts,” he added. “People can be charged, convicted and imprisoned for committing crimes they didn’t know they were committing.”

The policy brief outlines several Michigan statutes that are silent on intent. For example, in some instances it is illegal in Michigan for a person or corporation to buy or sell a new or used vehicle on a Sunday. The national anthem cannot be played as part of a medley, and dancing to “The Star Spangled Banner” is prohibited.

“Given that this is December, people should also be aware that it’s illegal in Michigan to transport a Christmas tree without carrying a bill of sale,” Reitz said. “Although the law does provide an exemption of two trees per person between November 30 and December 31 of the same year.”

The brief outlines several Michigan court cases involving intent and also provides model legislation — called the Criminal Intent Protection Act — for the Legislature to consider.

“If the Legislature enacts a criminal statute that is silent on intent, a default intent provision would be incorporated,” Reitz said. “A standardized application would make for a more orderly criminal justice system, preserve the rights of individuals, and remove the burden on the legal system to divine legislative intent.”

The policy brief, titled “Criminal Minds: The Importance of Defining Intent in Criminal Statutes,” can be found at

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. The largest state-based free-market think tank in the country celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.


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