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Mens rea in criminal cases

Most criminal matters in Tennessee require that a defendant has a mental state at the time of the offense called mens rea. In Latin, mens rea means a guilty mind. The mens rea element must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in order for a person to be convicted of the offense in crimes for which it is required.

An exception to the mens rea requirement are crimes that are called strict liability offenses. These offenses do not require any mens rea element. Instead, they are considered to be punishable even if there was no intent or knowledge on the part of the defendant. The classic example of a strict liability offense is the crime of statutory rape. Not knowing that the victim was underage is not a defense since it is a strict liability crime.

Many crimes require an intent element, meaning that the person intended for the offense to occur and for harm to be caused to the victim. This is different than acts of carelessness, which are negligent acts that are not generally punishable under criminal statutes. Many crimes are also knowing offenses. For example, a person who is charged with possession of a drug would need to know that he or she had it. If someone else slipped the drug into a purse without the owner's knowledge, then the purse's owner would not have the mens rea required for the crime of drug possession.

The required mens rea for an offense is something a criminal defense attorney may review when it is in question in a client's case. If an attorney can gather evidence showing that the person did not have the requisite mental state, a withdrawal of the charges could be sought.

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