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If you are facing criminal charges but are not a lawyer, you are likely to come across a few legal terms that are unfamiliar to you. One that you may encounter is mens rea, a legal concept important to any criminal defense.

Mens rea is Latin for “guilty mind.” Broadly speaking, it is a legal tenet that requires an individual to have criminal intent to be guilty of a crime. When you are planning a criminal defense, mens rea could come up in a few different ways.

A matter of degree

 Whether you are facing state or federal criminal charges, you likely know the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony. What you may not realize, though, is that many crimes have varying degrees of seriousness. For example, a crime related to someone’s death may be manslaughter, murder or something in between. Often, the defendant’s state of mind factors into a prosecutor’s decision about which charges to file.

Strict liability

 While most crimes in the United States require mens rea, a few offenses have strict liability. With these offenses, you are guilty whether you intended to commit a crime or not. Many traffic offenses fall into this category. Whether you are facing charges for a strict liability offense or one that requires criminal intent, communicating effectively with your attorney about your mental state is important.

Charging and sentencing

 Sometimes, criminal intent may affect both the charges prosecutors bring and the sentences defendants receive. For example, if you lack the mental capacity to understand the consequences of your actions, you may face no charges, or you may have a successful insanity defense. Furthermore, judges may consider your mental state when punishing you for criminal behavior. If you intended to commit a crime but your actions were justifiable, you may face no punishment.

Though mens rea is an archaic Latin phrase, it may play an important role in your criminal defense. By understanding how your mental state could affect the outcome of your case, you can better plan both for defending yourself and asserting your legal rights.