Criminal Law: Mens Rea and Actus Reus

Free «Criminal Law: Mens Rea and Actus Reus» Essay Sample

1. Introduction

Distinguishing between actus reus (conduct/guilty act) and mens rea (intent/mental state) has been one of the most basic processes used by lawyers, judges, and other personnel in the legal field. In addition, the offense-defense is also a part of the process used to analyze and conceptualize liability. Overall, this is what is identified as the foundation of the state of criminal liability as far as discussion goes (Burkoff & Weaver, 2011). Through their usefulness, mens rea and actus reus have made themselves justifiable. It has been identified that distinguishing the concepts presents discourse ambiguity. Further, critical doctrinal differences are hidden, therefore, they should be considered by criminal law. The argument in this paper is that mens rea and actus reus are incoherent as far distinguishing criminal liability and other acts is concerned.


Requirements in mens rea and actus reus are mainly a group of doctrines. Each concept has four doctrines. Doctrines in mens rea include future-conduct intention, future-result culpability, present-circumstance culpability, and present-conduct intention (O’Sullivan, 2006). Actus reus includes definitions of the objective elements of the offense, the voluntariness requirement, the act substitutes, and the act requirement.

Although mentioned doctrines have been grouped together in order to form mens rea and actus reus, the distinct doctrines in each group do not have any common function or trait. Putting the doctrines in such groups is a problem because it masks the presence of diverse doctrines which appear as though they have a common function or trait (Siegel & Senna, 2009). As an outcome, a loophole for confusion is created as well as room for analytic error. It would, therefore, be more beneficial if the distinction in the concepts was disregarded and the focus was driven to the underlying individual doctrines.   

2. Doctrines

2.1. Actus Reus Doctrines

2.1.1 Act/Omission Requirement

The voluntariness and the act requirements, mainly perceived as one requirement of actus reus, are distinct doctrines even though they are related at some level (O’Sullivan, 2006). When the definition of an act is presented as a willed movement, these two requirements are perceived as one. However, the two have been separated by the modern codes. Whether involuntary or voluntary, an act is presented as a bodily movement, according the modern codes.

One can satisfy the act requirement by presenting proof of an offense conduct element. Various other acts may satisfy the act requirement as well. The most evident examples of such scenarios include inchoate offense and complicity. Additionally, when one commits a crime through vicarious, innocent liability, it qualifies as the act requirement (Burkoff & Weaver, 2011). Overall, it offers the least liability’s condition. It is not dependent on the definitions reating to substantive-offense.  

The act requirement hinders the act of punishing thoughts that have not been externalized. It also tries to offer some form of objective proof that the intention of the defendant is in existence. It also gives the place and time of occurrence of offense. Moreover, the act requirement offers a point to start as far as solving the liability’s thorny issue as well as multiple related offenses punishment is concerned (Siegel & Senna, 2009). Additionally, it hinders the government from defining offenses. The act requirement, especially as evident as in the criminal code, has diminished application opportunity mainly with the exception relating to the legislature’s definition of an offense in order to incorporate an act.  

2.1.2 Act Substitutes

Since the act itself is not characterized with the universal applicability, legislatures, therefore, rely on a person’s omission to carry out an act that one is supposed to perform legally. The omission to perform and the act requirement, therefore, act as complements to each other. For liability to be considered, parties must prove one act or another. An omission does not serve any of the act requirement rationales (Siegel & Senna, 2009). However, it plays a role in rationale satisfaction. It occurs when they are linked to the legal duty to act in special requirement which is presumed to be up to the knowledge of the defendant. The conceptual similarity evident between the doctrines of omission and possession is accredited by the notion of indicating that contraband possession can be a criminal omission.

2.1.3 Voluntariness Requirement

According to this doctrine, criminal liability can be founded in voluntary possession. It can also be based on voluntary omission. A voluntary act can also be another basis. When an outcome is evident due to the willpower or effort of an actor, it is said that the situation was voluntary (O’Sullivan, 2006). The act/omission requirement and voluntariness requirement have a sense of relativity. However, they are independent doctrines treated as such in actus reus.

2.1.4 Objective Elements of the Offense

Objective elements of the offense are not dependent on voluntariness requirement. Similarly, they are not dependent on the act/omission requirement which is evident in contemporary codes. One of the main differences is that voluntariness and and act requirements comprise the general part of the code (Siegel & Senna, 2009). On the other hand, the offense definitions characterized by the objective elements are present in the latter. In order to prove liability, one must offer proof of all.

2.2. Mens Rea Doctrines

As indicated earlier, doctrines characterizing mens rea include future-conduct intention, future-result culpability, the present-circumstance culpability, and the present-conduct intention. These doctines can be further aligned in the categories of general and specific intents. When focusing on general intent, it relates to the purpose to neglect doing the act. Specific intent relates to any other kind of purpose requirement or mens rea (Burkoff & Weaver, 2011). Since the doctrines appear to revolve around culpability, it is relevant to identify the specific concepts in order to gain the distinguishing factors. This is knowing, reckless, intentional, and criminal negligence.

An individual is taken to have acted “intentionally” in relation to his/her conduct’s nature or result if he consciously had the desire or objective to cause the outcome or carry out the conduct. This type of culpability is subjective as the state must give proof that this mind’s status was present when the act was committed or the outcome was attained (Siegel & Senna, 2009). This type of negligence is called intentional.

The knowing negligence happens when an individual carries out a conduct with knowledge or knowingly, in relation to the conduct’s nature or to conditions engulfing his acts. A person is conscious of one’s conduct nature. An individual conducts him/herself with knowledge or knowingly, in relation to an outcome of his/her act when he is conscious that the act is assuredly going to cause the outcome.  

The reckless negligence takes place when an individual conducts him/herself recklessly, or is reckless, in relation to situations engulfing his/her act or the outcome. A person is conscious or deliberately ignores a significant and inexcusable risk that the situations engulf. Moreover, an individual realizes that the outcome will be evident. The threat must be of such level that its ignorance makes up a big divergence from the measure of care exercised by an ordinary individual (Siegel & Senna, 2009).

An individual conducts him/herself with criminal negligence, or is negligent criminally, in relation to situations engulfing his/her act or the outcome of his/her act. It happens when one should be conscious of a significant and indefensible threat that the conditions engulf. A person understands that the outcome will take place. The threat degree and nature should be in a manner that failing to perceive it includes a huge divergence from the measure of care exercised by an ordinary individual under all the situations as perceived from the angle of the actor (Siegel & Senna, 2009).

3. Conclusion

It is evident that the doctrines, through enhancements of the various concepts, would be more beneficial if they were distinctively considered, rather than placing them as mens rea and actus reus. The distinct doctrines in each group do not have any common function or trait. This factor causes a problem because it hides the diversity of doctrines; therefore, they seem to have a common trait or function. As a result, it creates confusion and analytical errors. It would be preferable to disregard the distinctions between the concepts and to focus on the underlying specific doctrines. It would, therefore, be more beneficial if the individual doctrines were enhanced and exploited rather than engulfing them in single terms and overlooking their deeper relevance in law.