We all have some idea (based on our own experience, moral intuition, common sense, and viewing of Law & Order) of what constitutes a crime in our legal system. We know that legislative bodies make rules of conduct, and that when citizens do not follow those rules, we face punishment. Courts determine whether we have broken the rules and what the punishment should be for doing so.
However, most Americans are not aware of the actual legal requirements for an action to be considered a crime. In order to win a criminal conviction against a defendant, the government must establish each element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. There are four basic requirements that, when met, can produce criminal liability against a defendant in the American common law system. They are as follows:
1. Actus Reus: Literally means “guilty act.” Generally the rule is that there must be an underlying act or a breach of legal duty to find the requisite actus reus. A fervent desire to do something cannot be punished, even if it proves that the defendant has a wicked heart. We also, in general, do not punish behavior that involves inaction or involuntary acts. Actus reus is probably the most straightforward of the elements of a crime, and many Americans assume it is the only requirement for a crime.
2. Mens Rea: Latin for “guilty mind.” Mens rea can generally be defined as criminal intent, ill-will, malice, knowledge, awareness, or purpose. Not all crimes have a mens rea requirement. Some use a strict liability approach, in which inherently dangerous behavior is punished, regardless of intent. According to the Model Penal Code, there are four levels of mens rea intent: purposefulness, knowledge, recklessness, and negligence. Most criminal statutes specify which level of intent is needed to establish liability.
3. Concurrence: The simultaneous occurrence of both actus reus and mens rea. If the defendant thought about committing an illegal act one week, and then accidentally committed the same act a week later, the concurrence element would probably not be satisfied and a crime would not be committed. There are two types of concurrence in criminal law: temporal concurrence and motivational concurrence. Temporal occurrence means the mens rea and actus reus occurred at the same time. Motivational occurrence means that the mens rea motivates the actus reus. Strict liability crimes do not require concurrence.
4. Causation: The causal relationship between conduct and result. The actus reus must cause the actual harm or result that occurs. If you shoot a person with the intention of killing him, and the bullet misses all his vital organs, and then he dies a few hours later of an unrelated terminal illness, the causation element of murder is probably not established. Both but-for cause and proximate cause must be present to prove causation. Results that are unforeseeable generally do not satisfy the causation element.
If you have been charged with violating Massachusetts criminal laws, you should immediately seek out the assistance of an experienced criminal defense attorney. Contact Edward R. Molari, Attorney at Law, today for a confidential consultation.