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What is mens rea?

People who are facing criminal charges in New York may find that issues of “mens rea” play a pivotal role in the outcome of their case. “Mens rea” is Latin for “guilty mind” and is related to determining a defendant’s state of mind at the time a crime was allegedly committed. In some circumstances, determining the state of mind can make someone less culpable for a crime than would otherwise be the case.

An example of mens rea can be seen in the difference between carelessness and criminal negligence. While someone can be careless without intending to do harm, carelessness might become negligence if a reasonable person should have known the action in question might have caused harm. This determination is often an important part of the prosecution process, and showing that a given action was careless instead of criminally negligent can be a viable defense strategy.

Similarly, some crimes can be qualified as being either “malicious” or “willful.” Although all criminal charges should be taken seriously, a crime committed with a malicious state of mind can actually have aggravated penalties that should be taken into account. As such, criminal defense strategies sometimes emphasize the fact that a given action was not performed with malicious intention.

In these cases, lawyers acting on a defendant’s behalf may work to present the accused in a more favorable light. If the prosecution claims that an action was somehow malicious, a lawyer may seek to undermine those allegations by presenting evidence to the contrary. Since it can be a challenge to discern someone’s state of mind, mens rea can be a beneficial tool in the mitigation process itself. Asserting that a defendant intended no harm can sometimes help to have the charges reduced or even dismissed altogether.

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