Culpable mental states are one of the most important parts of the functioning of criminal law. Though this topic digs into some complex legal theory and wordy definitions, understanding culpable mental states is essential to understanding criminal law as a whole.
Imagine a man is playing with his kids in his backyard at a family BBQ. He is carrying his pistol holstered at his belt. While he is running around with the kids he stumbles, his pistol is jostled loose from its holster, and it falls towards the ground. Instinctively, he reaches out to grab the falling gun. His finger loops through the trigger well and he shoots his brother-in-law on the other side of the BBQ lawn. The brother-in-law is transported to the hospital in stable condition.
Now imagine a different man. This man is also at a family BBQ when he gets into a verbal altercation with his brother-in-law. After a long heated argument, he draws his pistol from his belt holster, says to his brother-in-law “I’ll kill you!”, aims and shoots him. The brother-in-law is transported to the hospital in stable condition.
Both men sent someone to the hospital with a gunshot wound. But should both of these men be charged with the same crime and face the same punishment? I think most of us would agree that the answer is no—one of these men deserves far greater repercussions. But how does the law make the distinction?
Criminal acts have two distinct parts: actus reus (the “guilty act”) and mens rea (the “guilty mind”). Both men fired a shot that struck a human. Therefore, their actus reus is the same. But the mens rea, the mental state of each man, was very different.
The model penal code lays out culpable mental states for criminal acts. Most common in criminal offenses are the mens rea of intentionally, knowingly, and recklessly. The most culpable mental state is acting intentionally (also called purposefully):
A person acts intentionally if he acts with the intent that his action causes a certain result. In other words, he undertakes his action either intending for, or hoping that, a certain result will follow. For example: I aim my pistol and pull the trigger hoping that I shoot a specific individual.
Next is a mental state we call “knowingly.” A person acts knowingly if he is aware that his conduct will result in certain consequences. In other words, a person acts knowingly if he is aware that it is practically certain that his conduct will cause a specific result. For example: I fire my pistol into a crowd of people, knowing that the result will almost certainly be that a person is shot.
Farther down on the culpability scale is something known as recklessness. A person acts recklessly if he is aware of a substantial risk that a certain result will occur as a result of his actions, but he disregards that risk and undertakes the actions anyway. For example: I fire shots up into the air to celebrate the fourth of July, and a person is injured by a falling bullet.
The more purposeful and intentional a person’s conduct, the more harshly the law will punish them. This makes sense: we want to impose greater punishment on someone who plans and carries out a murder plot than we do someone who kills a bystander as a result of target shooting when he knows his backstop is deficient.
You might be thinking, none of these mental states seem to fit the man who accidentally dropped his gun, and pulled the trigger while he was trying to catch it. That’s because his mental state falls closer to something we call negligence. Negligence is simply failing to act with the ordinary standard of care that a reasonable person would implement. In its more extreme form, it is actions that grossly deviate from that ordinary standard of care. In most states this is called gross negligence or criminal negligence, and can result in criminal charges.
Though you might not see culpable mental states on the front page of the newspaper, these concepts are foundational to criminal law. Mental states are half the criminal equation, and understanding them will put you leaps and bounds above the rest. For questions about these issues or any others, call U.S. LawShield and ask to speak to your independent program attorney.