Great article on Tuesday in the Wall Street Journal about the ever-increasing number of federal crimes that lack any mens rea, or intent requirement, to find guilt. As the article details, this leads to a lot of unfair convictions and punishments for acts that most of us would not assume are crimes:
For centuries, a bedrock principle of criminal law has held that people must know they are doing something wrong before they can be found guilty. The concept is known as mens rea, Latin for a "guilty mind."
This legal protection is now being eroded as the U.S. federal criminal code dramatically swells. In recent decades, Congress has repeatedly crafted laws that weaken or disregard the notion of criminal intent. Today not only are there thousands more criminal laws than before, but it is easier to fall afoul of them. As a result, what once might have been considered simply a mistake is now sometimes punishable by jail time.
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.