Back in 1790, the first federal criminal law passed by Congress listed fewer than 20 federal crimes. Today there are an estimated 4,500 crimes in federal statutes, plus thousands more embedded in federal regulations, many of which have been added to the penal code since the 1970s.
One controversial new law can hold animal-rights activists criminally responsible for protests that cause the target of their attention to be fearful, regardless of the protesters’ intentions. Congress passed the law in 2006 with only about a half-dozen of the 535 members voting on it.
Under English common law principles, most U.S. criminal statutes traditionally required prosecutors not only to prove that defendants committed a bad act, but also that they also had bad intentions. In a theft, don’t merely show that the accused took someone’s property, but also show that he or she knew it belonged to someone else.
Over time, lawmakers have devised a sliding scale for different crimes. For instance, a “willful” violation is among the toughest to prove.
Overall, more than 40% of nonviolent offenses created or amended during two recent Congresses—the 109th and the 111th, the latter of which ran through last year—had “weak” mens rea requirements at best, according to a study conducted by the conservative Heritage Foundation and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The study, one of the few to examine mens rea, was extended to include the most recent Congress at the request of The Wall Street Journal.
Earlier this year, Justice Antonin Scalia, in a dissent from a Supreme Court decision upholding a firearms-related conviction, wrote that Congress “puts forth an ever-increasing volume” of imprecise criminal laws and criticized lawmakers for passing too much “fuzzy, leave-the-details-to-be-sorted-out-by-the-courts” legislation.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle worry about the weakening of mens rea. “Over my six years in Congress there have been many times when in discussions with members of Congress I say, ‘Look, I know you want to show people how serious you are about crime, but don’t put anything on the books that doesn’t require criminal intent,'” says Rep. Louie Gohmert, (R., Tex.) a former state judge who wants the federal system reworked.
In a 2009 Judiciary subcommittee hearing on the growth of federal criminal law, Rep. Bobby Scott (D., Va.)., said that mens rea had long served “an important role in protecting those who do not intend to commit wrongful or criminal acts from prosecution and conviction.”
And this bit, about the reduced relevance of the maxim that ignorance of the law is no excuses (a point I made earlier):
The growing number of federal laws with weakened mens rea safeguards is making the venerable legal principle that ignorance of the law is no defense a much riskier proposition for people. That principle made sense, says University of Virginia law professor Anne Coughlin, when there were fewer criminal laws, like murder, and most people could be expected to know them.
But when legislators “criminalize everything under the sun,” Ms. Coughlin says, it’s unrealistic to expect citizens to be fully informed about the penal code.” With reduced intent requirements “suddenly it opens a whole lot of people to being potential violators.”
H/T Adam A.
Update: More from The Faculty Lounge:
The lack of a mens rea requirement in so many federal crimes, often the result of poor or sloppy drafting, goes hand in hand with the mushrooming number of crimes now punishable by federal, as opposed to state, law. This vast federalization of crime, which has primarily taken place in the last thirty years or so, makes it more and more difficult for the average citizen to have even a basic working knowledge of what is and is not criminal conduct. Combined with harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws, it is no wonder our prisons are full to bursting.