Washington, DC (Nov. 18, 2015) – On Monday, bipartisan leadership from the House Judiciary Committee and House Crime Subcommittee introduced important legislation to address the erosion in the criminal intent, or mens rea, requirement in federal criminal law, legislation which today passed out of the House Judiciary Committee by a unanimous voice vote. Since at least 2009, as evidenced by the House Crime Subcommittee's first hearing on the "Over-criminalization and Over-federalization of Criminal Law," Members have been interested in the importance that criminal intent requirements play in a fair and rational criminal justice system.
Also, today in the U.S. Senate a group of Senators introduced even stronger legislation aimed at ensuring that only those who are truly culpable of criminal conduct committed with criminal intent are ensnared by federal criminal laws. Introduced by U.S. Senators Orrin Hatch, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Rand Paul and David Perdue, the mens rea reform would generally establish a default criminal intent requirement that the government prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant acted "willfully, with respect to any element for which the text of the covered offense does not specify a state of mind." NACDL endorses strong mens rea, or criminal intent, requirements in the criminal law.
For many years, there has been a drift away from the core requirement that the government prove some sort of culpable criminal state of mind to commit the bad, illegal act before it can take away someone's liberty. And it has been accompanied by a dramatic rise in the number of federal criminal statutes and criminal regulations. There is a real risk that these laws are used to prosecute and imprison individuals who do not in fact have the knowledge, intent or any culpable mental state with respect to the acts for which they are prosecuted.
In a speech delivered last week in Washington. D.C., Norman L. Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), explained, "Intent requirements are the moral anchor of our criminal law….It is critical – especially for the little guy who cannot afford cadres of high priced lawyers to analyze every statute and regulation – that we produce meaningful reform that will ensure that every criminal statute has a precisely defined intent requirement."
In its pursuit of a more fair and just criminal justice system, NACDL has long been focused on mens rea reform. Indeed, at a May 2010 event on Capitol Hill with leaders from both parties speaking, NACDL and The Heritage Foundation released a groundbreaking study documenting the erosion of the intent requirement in federal criminal law, Without Intent, and urging reforms of the type set forth in the legislation introduced today. NACDL has been working steadfastly on these issues in the years since, and will continue to lead the way for mens rea reform on the state level as well.
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The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's many thousands of direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal justice system.