How To Interpret Criminal Statutes

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Criminal law, also known as penal law, is the body of law relating to illegal acts or crimes that are committed against public authority. The most distinct differences between criminal law and civil law are their punishments and the processes used in determining them. Most commonly, criminal law will be enforced by either a state government or federal government. The interpretation of criminal laws requires interpreting the elements of a criminal statute.

The Elements of Criminal Law

The elements of a criminal statute include actus reus , or guilty act; and mens rea, or guilty mind. Most commonly in criminal law, actus reus must be proven along with mens rea to convict someone of a criminal offense. However, there are some situations that do not require both to be proven. In criminal cases, a motive is considered to be completely different from intent. Therefore, a motive is not considered a crime. However, proving that a motive exists in a criminal case can increase the possibility of a criminal conviction.

Criminal Law: Actus Reus and Mens Rea

In most criminal cases, a prosecutor's responsibility is to convince the jury or judge, whichever the situation, that the defendant committed the actions (actus reus) that are charged against them with the criminal intent (mens rea) described under that particular criminal law. A prosecutor in a criminal case must prove the defendant is guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt." To make it simpler, the person charged of a crime must have committed the crime, and also had the intent to do so.

Criminal Law: Strict Liability

When interpreting criminal statutes, ensuring a conviction against the defendant does not always require proof of the person's intent on committing a crime. It is possible that a person can cause damage or loss without intending on doing any harm or breaking any law. Certain situations such as these involve the concept of strict liability offenses. In a criminal case involving strict liability offenses, the prosecutor may only need to prove "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the defendant was the one to commit the action regardless of his or her intent.

For example, a person's negligence may result in loss or damage that is forbidden by criminal law. Intent is not involved in cases such as these. Therefore, criminal intent or mens rea is not considered to be a determining factor in the outcome or verdict. The main factor will be the criminal act or actus reus.

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