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Mental State and Criminal Law

Posted on October 22, 2019 in Defense Strategies

In order to commit a crime, with one important exception, there must be both a culpable act (called an actus reus), and a culpable mental state (called a mens rea).  But what exactly does a mental state mean in the context of crimes?

Arizona recognizes four different mental states:

  • Intentionally
  • Knowingly
  • Recklessly
  • Negligently

Intentionally Committing a Crime

Often the wording may be changed – for example, something done intentionally can be said to be done “with the intent to.” Something done knowingly can be done “with knowledge that.” However, the underlying scheme is the same.  Each of these mental states require something different to be proven before a defendant can be convicted of a crime.

“Intentionally,” as defined by Arizona Revised Statutes § 13-105(10)(a) means that a person’s objective is to cause a result or to engage conduct.  Essentially, this means you meant to do what you did.

Knowingly Committing a Crime

“Knowingly,” as defined by Arizona Revised Statutes § 13-105(10)(b) means that a person is aware or believes that their conduct is of a nature or that a particular circumstance exists.  This means that you knew what you were doing or that you should have known what you were doing, with respect to any conduct or circumstance described by a statute describing an offense.

Recklessly Committing a Crime

“Recklessly,” as defined by Arizona Revised Statutes § 13-105(10)(c) means that a person is aware of and consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that a result will occur or that the circumstances exist, and the risk is of such a degree and nature that disregarding is a gross deviation from the standard of conduct a reasonable person would observe.  Acting in a reckless way in the criminal sense means that you were aware of a risk that your actions caused and disregarded that risk anyways.

Negligently Committing a Crime

“Negligently” as defined by Arizona Revised Statutes § 13-105(10)(d) means that a person failed to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk that a result would occur or a circumstance existed, and that the risk was of such a nature and degree that failing to perceive it constituted a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.

Why does all this matter?

This all matters because for most crimes the State must provide some evidence of what you were thinking at the time of the offense, and this is prime ground for defending your case.  If a statute requires intentional action, but you were simply acting recklessly, that is a defense.

Some offenses, however, are strict liability offenses, and these do not require any mental state at all.  A strict liability offense punishes conduct regardless of what you were thinking.  A prime example of a strict liability offense in Arizona is Driving Under the Influence pursuant to Arizona Revised Statutes § 28-1381(A)(1), which only requires evidence that you were driving or in actual physical control of a car while under the influence of alcohol or drugs and your ability to drive was impaired to the slightest degree.

Contact a Phoenix Criminal Defense Attorney Today

If you are charged with a crime, you need to know exactly what it is that the State must prove to convict you.  You need this information to fully protect your liberty, your rights, and your good name.  The Phoenix criminal attorneys at AZ Defenders have experience in defending all manner of criminal cases, including strict liability crimes and those with mens rea requirements.  If you are charged with a crime in Arizona, call the attorneys at AZ Defenders at (480) 456-6400 or contact us online today for a free consultation.  The sooner we are on your case, the sooner we can help you get the best possible result.

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