Criminal Intent – The Necessary Mental State Known As MENS REA

In Utah, jurors cannot assume that just because you did something, you did it with criminal intent. In other words, let’s assume you raise your arms to yawn, and hit somebody in the nose while doing it, and then, that person’s nose starts to be bleed. Is this an automatic assault? Well, any Kindergartener knows that to be guilty, you have to do something “on purpose.” Fortunately, the Utah Supreme Court agrees with all those kids.

Just recently in the State v. Bird case, the court said the rule of thumb for jury instructions is that “an accurate instruction upon the basic elements of an offense is essential. Failure to so instruct constitutes reversible error.”

And, what we lawyers called “mens rea”, meaning “intent”, is an “essential element of [an] offense”. says this about mens rea: “a criminal intention or knowledge that an act is wrong.”

The Utah Supreme Court made it clear that “failure to instruct the jury as to the required mens rea, when it is an element of the crime, is reversible error”. In other words, if you have a jury trial, demand that that is put in your jury instructions. If you have already been convicted, and it was absent, you can argue the judge missed a plain error.

In the case of State v. Stringham, a person was convicted for communications fraud, which is a felony, but the court of appeals reversed that conviction, and ordered that a new trial be given to the defendants because the trial court failed to tell the jurors about the mens rea element. In other words, don’t just assume that the judge and prosecutor are up on all the legal nuances and rules because such are easy to overlook.

In Stringham the court said, “It is too long a reach to suggest the jury divined that defendant had to act intentionally because such a level of volition is inherent in the concept of ‘devis[ing] a scheme’.” Okay, now that’s a mouthful, but here is what it means in plain English, “Hey, the jury isn’t God, and cannot be expected to be able to pull out of the air whether the defendants acted with criminal intent – the prosecutor must show them they he did. In other words, jurors cannot simply say, well, he yawned and his arm hit that girl’s nose, so he must have intended to cause her nose to bleed.

Thumbs up to the Supreme Court of Utah for laying this down.

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