Senate Judiciary Committee members Orrin Hatch, R-Utah; Mike Lee, R-Utah; Ted Cruz, R-Texas; and David Perdue, R-Ga., together with Senator Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced legislation to strengthen criminal intent protections in federal law.
Their bill, the Mens Rea Reform Act of 2015, would set a default intent standard for all criminal laws and regulations that lack such a standard. It would ensure that courts and creative prosecutors do not take the absence of a criminal intent standard to mean that the government can obtain a conviction without any proof a guilty mind. The House Judiciary Committee introduced its own version of a default mens rea bill earlier this week.
“Criminal intent requirements are an essential bulwark against unjust prosecution and incarceration of morally innocent actors,”Senator Hatch said. “Requiring proof of criminal intent protects individuals from prison time or other criminal penalties for accidental conduct or for activities they didn’t know were wrong. Unfortunately, in recent years Congress and federal agencies have increasingly created crimes with vague or unclear criminal intent requirements or with no criminal intent requirement at all. This bill will help correct that problem and ensure that honest, hard-working Americans are not swept up in the criminal justice system for doing things a reasonable person would not know were wrong.”
“The federal code is sprinkled with criminal laws that either do not specify an intent requirement or do not include a sufficient intent requirement, and the federal register contains many similarly deficient regulations,” Senator Lee said. “We must take account of the lack of sufficient intent requirements in federal laws and regulations and ensure that innocent persons are not held criminally liable for otherwise innocent conduct, except where Congress explicitly desires. I have long urged Congress to get the law right and to provide for a default mens rea standard both for those statutes and regulations that do not already specify such a standard and for those statutes and regulations that may be enacted in the future without specifying a mens rea standard, and this bill proposes to do exactly that.”
“Sen. Hatch’s Mens Rea Reform Act deserves to become law,” said Senator Cruz. While Congress is spending a lot of time talking about criminal justice reform, it is ignoring one of the biggest flaws in our modern criminal justice system: the federal government can send American men and women to prison without demonstrating criminal intent. The Mens Rea Reform Act needs to be enacted to protect the rights of all Americans and should be a part of other criminal justice reform efforts.”
“Today’s bill is an essential tool in combatting the problem of overcriminalization at the federal level,” said Senator Perdue. “Far too many federal laws and regulations on the books today have no mens rea requirement whatsoever and have been used to target innocent Americans who did not intend to break the law. This bill helps protect American citizens and needs to be part of our overall effort to improve our criminal justice system.”
“No one who is taught that you are innocent until proven guilty in American could imagine we put people in jail for crimes they did not even know they were committing, yet that is exactly what the federal government does. We have to put an end to that practice, and this bill is an important step in that direction,” Senator Paul said.
To learn more about the need for default mens rea legislation and the problem of overcriminalization generally, please click here for an address Senator Hatch delivered on the issue.