Mens Rea in New Jersey Criminal Cases

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Mens Rea: What it Means and Why it Matters when Charged with a Crime in NJ

Anyone charged with a crime in the United States is “innocent until proven guilty.” We have all heard this phrase thrown around hundreds of times. But what does it really mean to be proven guilty? In New Jersey, to be proven guilty, the prosecutor must show that you committed an unlawful criminal act and many times, that you had the required mental state during the commission of the crime. The legal community refers to this mental state as “mens rea.” Usually, you cannot be found guilty of an offense unless you are proven to have possessed the necessary mens rea in committing the prohibited act, meaning the crime in question. Prosecutors and some inexperienced criminal defense attorneys often fail to meticulously inspect all of the evidence in a given case in order to see if the state’s case lacks support for the offense’s associated mens rea, which is required in order for someone to be proven guilty. It is not enough to say that you did something that was against the law. In the majority of cases, what you were thinking, or what was known to you at the time of the offense, is just as important as the act itself.

Through continuous representation of individuals charged with crimes, the Middlesex County criminal defense lawyers at our firm have become accustomed to seeing people just like you being overcharged with one or more criminal offenses that can be disputed in a court of law. This overcharging or erroneous charging of offenses is often due to a lack of understanding by police and prosecutors of just what the term mens rea actually means, and how it applies to your case. Here, we explain this critical component of criminal cases in New Jersey. To discuss the specific crime for which you have been charged and the applicability of your mental state at the time, we encourage you to contact our local Edison law office at (732) 659-9600 for a complimentary consultation.

What is Mens Rea under New Jersey Criminal Law?

The law pertaining to mens rea is N.J.S.A. 2C:2-2. This section makes it clear that each offense can only be charged if it is committed or alleged to have been committed with the prescribed mental element. The possible mental elements under the statute are purposely, knowingly, recklessly, or negligently. There is a notable exception to this rule, however, as described in subsection c.(3). According to this subsection, if a crime is designated as one of “strict liability,” it does bear a requisite culpable mental state.

Each criminal offense set forth in the code delineates the required mental element that must be proven together with the act itself. If no mental element is specifically listed in the statute, the state must prove that you acted knowingly as to each element of the offense. Each of the defined mental elements means something slightly different. They are as follows:

Purposely: If the statute requires the state to prove that you acted purposely, it must be demonstrated that it was your intention to commit an act or that the result of that act was your “conscious objective.”

Many people come to us and say “it was an accident” or “I didn’t mean to do it.” Acting with purpose is not an accident. For instance, if you are accused of shoplifting and store surveillance shows that an item fell in your bag or that your child grabbed something unbeknownst to you, it would be difficult to prove that you acted purposely.

Knowingly: This term is different from purposely, in that the person accused of acting knowingly is said to be aware of what is happening around him, and understands that the result might occur, although it may not be his conscious objective to cause that specific result.

An example of knowingly acting can be understood in the context of murder. Homicide is murder when a person acts purposely or knowingly. For knowingly, if I set out to kill you, point a gun, shoot you, and you die, it will be proven that I purposely killed you. Conversely, if I set out to burn your house down and I know that you are inside sleeping, it is likely that I know I could kill you in doing so, therefore I acted knowingly.

Recklessly: A person can be said to act recklessly when he is aware of a substantial risk and ignores that risk, ultimately causing a negative result. It must further be shown that there is no justifiable reason for ignoring the risk.

Hypothetically, if you shoot an arrow using a crossbow in someone’s direction and you accidentally hit the person, you would be considered to have recklessly assaulted the person. You knew the person could be hit but you ignored the risk and released the arrow in his direction anyway.

Negligently: Anyone who acts negligently is seemingly less culpable than anyone who acts purposely, knowingly, or recklessly. To act negligently, means that a substantial risk existed and you should have noticed or observed the risk but failed to do so.

Generally, negligently acting involves something so obvious that an everyday average person, such as a juror, would have immediately recognized it as such. For example, pointing a firearm at someone can be said to be reckless.

What is a Strict Liability Offense in NJ?

In criminal law, strict liability refers to those crimes that do not require the defendant acting negligently, recklessly, knowingly, or purposely. For instance, strict liability for drug-induced death is among the most serious felony charges you can face under the NJ Criminal Code. This first degree crime occurs when someone manufactures, distributes or dispenses a controlled dangerous substance to another individual, who dies from said substance by injecting, inhaling, or ingesting it. A common scenario to which this charge applies is selling someone heroin laced with fentanyl. Since fentanyl is much stronger than typical heroin, the person can die by overdose if they inject their typical dose of heroin not knowing that it contains fentanyl. Learn more about what it means if you have been charged with a strict liability crime.

Why Does Mens Rea Matter in My Criminal Case?

Often we see charges filed against people that do not fit their actual actions or intentions. In other words, sometimes crimes are purely accidental and the accused never meant to commit a crime. The intentions of the accused, once crucially analyzed, may not be what the legislature specifically intended to punish. This is where innocent until proven guilty comes to life in the form of a trial. If the state cannot prove the mental element of the crime at a trial (provided that it is not a strict liability offense), the charges must be dismissed. This dismissal transpires by way of motion but more often, it happens after a jury trial in which the accused is acquitted.

It should be noted that ignorance of the law (not knowing that a law existed) is no excuse when charged with a crime and is not the equivalent of failing to prove mens rea. As an example, if I drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs and cause an accident and hurt someone, I will be charged with assault by auto. It is not defensible to say that I did not know it was a crime to drink, drive, and cause an accident.

More frequently, our seasoned criminal defense lawyers see cases somewhere in the middle of the spectrum when it comes to the mental element. For cases such as these, it is possible to have the charges dismissed, downgraded, or amended to another offense requiring a lower level of culpability. Experienced criminal attorneys can achieve these results by exposing the circumstances surrounding the offense. Pointing out what was happening around you, how your attention was diverted, or making the alleged victim’s role and the interplay between the two clear for jurors, are all critical components for achieving better results when you or a loved one has been charged with a crime in Middlesex County and throughout New Jersey.

Need Help Defending Against Criminal Charges? Contact Us

No criminal case is ever precisely the same as another. Whether it be aggravated assaultunlawful possession of a weaponlewdnessburglarytheft by deception, or another crime, there are different locations, different players, and different facts that play a role. Nevertheless, one constant remains: prosecutors usually must prove that you possessed the requisite mental state/mens rea before you can be found guilty. Our experience and diligence in representing those facing criminal charges in New Brunswick, Woodbridge, Edison, South Brunswick, Piscataway, and throughout Middlesex County and the state of New Jersey, can make it difficult for the prosecutor to prove their case against you, whether we are challenging the required mental state for the crime, the way that evidence was collected, weak witness testimony, or another defense strategy that we often use to get charges dismissed. Call (732) 659-9600 today if you would like to speak with a dedicated criminal lawyer regarding your case and defense.

William Proetta

With more than a decade of experience defending clients against criminal charges, founding partner William A. Proetta has successfully handled and tried thousands of cases, from DWI to murder. As a New Jersey native, he has focused his career on helping people in the area where he grew up, serving Middlesex, Ocean, Hudson, and Union counties.