Understanding Mens Rea in North Carolina Criminal Cases

In order to prove your guilt, a prosecutor must show that you 1) committed a criminal act, and 2) did so with criminal intent. This intent is called mens rea. With few exceptions, if the State cannot show that you had the requisite mens rea, a judge or jury cannot find you guilty.

What is Mens Rea?

Mens rea is a Latin term that means “guilty mind.” The concept of mens rea helps the criminal justice system differentiate between someone who intentionally sets out to commit a crime and someone who did not mean to commit the crime. Whether someone will be found guilty of a crime, and the severity of his punishment, depends on his mental state.  

What Are the Levels of Mens Rea, or Criminal Intent, Associated with Various Crimes?

North Carolina law assigns certain different standards of intent based on the nature of the crime. Common states of mind associated with crimes include negligence, malice, and willfulness. In these cases, the prosecutor must prove that you acted negligently, maliciously, or willfully, as applicable. 

Some crimes (such as many traffic violations) are strict liability crimes, which means the State does not have to prove your mens rea at all. In these cases, your state of mind doesn’t matter; the State only needs to prove that you committed the criminal act, whether you intended to or not.

How Do You Prove Mens Rea?

Proving mens rea is often the most difficult part of a case as the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a particular mindset or motivation compelled you to commit the crime. In doing so, the State will often present extremely factual evidence showing your motivations, such as previous patterns of criminal behavior or testimony from those who have witnessed your criminal behavior in the past.   

If you have been charged with a crime, a skilled criminal defense attorney can assist you in explaining the elements of the particular crime, including mens rea, and preparing the best defense. If you find yourself in need of assistance, contact Attorney Jeremy Cotten. He has served hundreds of clients through Wake, Johnston, Harnett, Orange, Sampson, Lee, and Chatham Counties and is ready to meet with you to discuss your case. Give him a call or head to the main page to speak with a legal assistant 24 hours a day.