Strict Liability Doctrine
A rule of criminal responsibility that authorizes the conviction of a morally innocent person for violation of an offense, even though the crime, by definition, requires proof of a mens rea.
- example: A person who is ignorant of, or who misunderstands the meaning of, a criminal law may be punished for violating it, even if her ignorance or mistake of law was reasonable.
Crimes that do not contain a mens rea requirement regarding one or more elements of the actus reus.
When will a court interpret a statute to be one of strict liability?
- The statutory crime does not come from common law.
- There is an evident legislative policy that would be undermined by a mens rea requirement.
- The standard imposed by the statute is “reasonable and adherence thereto properly expected of a person.”
- The penalty for violation of the statute is small.
- “The conviction does not gravely besmirch.” (damage the reputation of another)
Public welfare offenses are not derived from common law.
- A single violation of such an offense can simultaneously injure a great number of people (legislature’s desire to disregard questions of personal moral guilt in favor of “sense of the importance of collective interests.)
- The standard imposed by the statute is reasonable. “don’t sell alcohol to minors.”
- The penalty is minor, sometimes only a fine.
- The conviction rarely damages the reputation of the violator.
- They do not require proof that Def. possessed a mens rea regarding the material element of the offense.
- Statutory rape = strict liability because: The statute does not require, and most courts have refused to imply, any mens rea element regarding the Def.’s knowledge of the female’s underage status.
- Non-public welfare strict-liability offenses often result in severe punishment.
- Non-public welfare offenses typically involve conduct malum in se (evil in itself) - violators are stigmatized despite absence of proven moral fault.
- One who does not choose to cause social harm, and who is not otherwise morally to blame for its commission, does not deserve to be punished.
- Absence of mens rea requirement may have the desirable effect of keeping people who doubt their capacity to act safely from participating in dangerous activities.
- Those who choose to partake in the risky activity will act with greater caution in light of the strict liability nature of the law.
- An inquiry into the actors’ mens rea “would exhaust courts.”
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