Criminal Justice

Clinton May Get a Pass Based on Her Intentions. So Why Do Democrats Want to Imprison Those Who Make Honest Mistakes?

Justice requires mens rea reform, even if it helps the guilty.


Supporters of Hillary Clinton should have a new appreciation for the legal concept of mens rea—literally, "defendant's mind"—because it looks like it will save her from federal prosecution for her use of a personal email server as secretary of state. In recommending that the Justice Department not bring charges against Clinton, FBI Director James Comey distinguished her "extremely careless" handling of "very sensitive, highly classified information" from previous cases involving "intentional and willful mishandling."

Not every potential federal defendant gets the benefit of such distinctions. Consider the retired racecar driver on a snowmobile outing in Colorado who got lost in a blizzard and unwittingly crossed into a National Forest Wilderness Area, the Native Alaskan trapper who sold 10 sea otters to a buyer he mistakenly believed was also a Native Alaskan, and the 11-year-old Virginia girl who rescued a baby woodpecker from her cat.

The first two of these incidents resulted in misdemeanor and felony convictions, respectively, while the third led to a fine (later rescinded) and threats of prosecution. All three qualify as federal crimes, even though the perpetrators had no idea they were breaking the law—a kind of injustice that would be addressed by reforms that opponents falsely portray as a special favor to corporate polluters and other felonious fat cats.

The federal code contains something like 5,000 criminal statutes and describes an estimated 30,000 regulatory violations that can be treated as crimes. The fact that no one knows the precise numbers is itself a scandal, compounded by the fact that many of these provisions include minimal or no mens rea requirements, which specify the mental state required for conviction.

The upshot is that innocent acts, honest mistakes, and simple accidents can lead to criminal convictions that deprive people of their liberty and property, ruin their reputations, and carry lifelong collateral consequences ranging from impaired occupational opportunities to the loss of constitutional rights. That's a serious problem recognized by Democrats as well as Republicans, as demonstrated by the bipartisan support for mens rea reform in the House of Representatives.

Yet Senate Democrats dismiss the proposed changes, which would add culpability requirements to statutes that do not address the issue, as "corporate protection." They blame Republican insistence on mens rea reform for imperiling a criminal justice reform bill that until recently seemed likely to pass this year.

It would be a shame if disagreement on this issue prevented Congress from reducing excessively harsh federal sentences. But Senate Democrats' critique of mens rea reform is seriously misguided, if not downright disingenuous.

Their chief complaint, also voiced by the Justice Department, is that requiring the government to prove a defendant knew he was breaking the law will make it harder to convict people. No kidding. The same could be said of many safeguards widely supported by civil libertarians, including the presumption of innocence, the exclusion of illegally obtained evidence, the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and the ban on double jeopardy.

No doubt guilty people, including violent criminals, escape conviction because of these rules. Likewise, if Congress beefed up federal mens rea requirements, some white-collar malefactors probably would escape criminal punishment as a result. But that prospect should not deter Congress from doing what's right.

"The critics of mens rea reform—there's no way of overestimating the cynicism of these people," said Harvey Silverglate, a leading critic of overcriminalization, in a recent interview with Reason TV. "They're saying, 'It would be a terrible thing, because the people we don't like—corporate executives—they will be able to get off by arguing that there's absolutely no criminal intent on their part. So you want absolute criminal liability for people you don't like. However, when they come at you, suddenly you say, 'Well, I didn't intend to break the law.'"

That defense is deeply rooted in our moral intuitions and legal traditions. As the Supreme Court observed in 1952, "The contention that an injury can amount to a crime only when inflicted by intention is no provincial or transient notion. It is as universal and persistent in mature systems of law as belief in freedom of the human will and a consequent ability and duty of the normal individual to choose between good and evil."

To impose criminal penalties on people for inadvertent violations of the law is plainly unjust, regardless of their occupation or social class. That the guilty will sometimes benefit from this principle is no excuse for denying its protection to the innocent.

© Copyright 2016 by Creators Syndicate Inc.