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The Conundrum of Strict Liability Crimes (1)

Maul Law Nov. 29, 2017

In Morrissette vs. United States, 342 U.S. 246 (1952), Justice Robert Jackson, writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, affirmed the longstanding principle of common-law crimes that for an individual to be held guilty, they must have both committed the act (actus reus) and possess the intention or knowledge of wrongdoing that constitutes part of a crime, as opposed to the action or conduct of the accused (mens rea). However, in that case, the Court also recognized a class of public welfare or strict liability offenses that do not require mens rea. In other words, an individual may be convicted for having committed the proscribed act alone, regardless of knowledge or intention.

Public welfare offenses, which began to appear in the 19th century and were largely regulatory in nature, addressed acts such as the sale of alcohol to minors, selling misbranded or harmful products, pollution, and traffic violations were intended to address new problems that arose from industrialization and urbanization. In recent decades, federal and state legislatures have dropped intent from an ever-expanding list of crimes, leaving some scholars and lawyers concerned that mens rea, one of the core pillars of the Anglo-American system of criminal law, is being steadily eroded.

Historically, intent was divided into two categories—general or specific. To prove a general intent crime, the prosecution must show that the actor purposefully or voluntarily performed the wrongful act. A specific intent crime, on the other hand, requires the intention to perform a specific criminal act. Acts such as assault, burglary, and first-degree murder are specific intent crimes. Strict liability, as already noted, requires no intention. Here is how the Michigan Supreme Court described the distinction in People vs. Lardie:

For a strict-liability crime, the people need only prove that the act was performed regardless of what the actor knew or did not know. On this basis, the distinction between a strict-liability crime and a general-intent crime is that, for a general-intent crime, the people must prove that the defendant purposefully or voluntarily performed the wrongful act, whereas, for a strict-liability crime, the people merely need to prove that the defendant performed the wrongful act, irrespective of whether he intended to perform it.

While many states have enacted default intent statutes requiring general intent for crimes, even where a statute may be silent on intention, Michigan is not among them. Rather, Michigan continues to enact strict liability statutes for crimes despite the Michigan Supreme Court’s position that such laws are generally disfavored.

As will be discussed over this series of posts, the Michigan Supreme Court has crafted an opening whereby a general intent requirement can be inferred even for statutes that are otherwise silent regarding intent. Even so, the legislature is not barred from passing strict liability statutes and that an examination of statutory language and legislative intent can defeat a presumption of a general intent requirement for a broad range of criminal offenses.