Negotiating Plea Deals

Actus Reus And Mens Rea — What Makes Up A Crime

by Flenn Lane

What makes a crime a crime? The question may seem simple and obvious, but it's more complex than most Americans realize. In fact, there are two components to a crime, and both must be proven in order for the jury to convict a defendant. 

What are these components? And what must the prosecution prove about them? Here's what every accused person needs to know.

What Is Actus Reus?

The most obvious part of a crime is the action taken. The term used for legal purposes is actus reus, which is Latin for 'the guilty act'. There is no crime unless you actually committed the act. However, the act may differ. For example, if you tried to steal a car but couldn't gain access, the actus reus isn't theft but the attempt to commit theft. 

In rare occasions, the actus reus can also be an omission. If you failed to act when required to — such as a parent who fails to care for their child — this could be the actus reus by omission. 

What Is Mens Rea?

Doing the deed isn't the only part of a crime. There must also be some sort of mental component. The mens rea, or 'guilty mind', varies according to the type of crime with which a person is charged. If you pick up a gun and shoot someone, there is a clear intent to shoot the person and commit a crime.

However, not every crime must come with that same level of intent. Someone who drinks several beers and then drives probably did not intend to hit a pedestrian. However, they acted recklessly and wantonly in choosing to drink and drive. Such recklessness means they knew there was a danger and yet proceeded with disregard for human life. This is the mens rea of criminal negligence. 

What Do These Mean for You?

The nitty-gritty of legal terminology isn't just an academic exercise. The prosecution must prove both elements exist in order to convict you of the crime. If your legal team can sow seeds of doubt about either one, it can sway a jury. Remember, the burden of proof is on the prosecution rather than you as the defendant. 

Where Can You Learn More?

When both elements must be proven in a court of law, your best bet is often to focus on the weakest link in the chain. Which is yours? Find out by meeting with a local attorney today.