When Courts Have to Guess What the Law Says: Implying a Culpable State of Mind

Posted by William Bly | May 29, 2017 | 0 Comments

With the huge impact that they can have on your life, you would expect criminal statutes to be meticulously crafted and carefully written so that there was no doubt what they meant. The reality, though, is very different.

The ability of lawmakers to make and then pass statutes that are clear and unambiguous runs completely across the spectrum of competence. Unfortunately, if you've been charged with the crime of violating a statute that was poorly written, it can create confusion and ambiguity that can impact your life. One way that this can happen is when a criminal statute fails to state a culpable state of mind. Luckily, the Maine State Legislature has accounted for this. Here's what happens.

The Problem: No Culpable State of Mind in a Criminal Statute

As a society, we tend to agree that it's worse to do something bad, intentionally, than it is to do it unintentionally. That's why the law looks at intent so closely when it hands out criminal penalties.

However, breaking all conduct down into things that were done intentionally or unintentionally doesn't account for a lot of nuances. That's why the law in the state of Maine recognizes four culpable states of mind. In descending order of criminality, these are intent, knowledge, recklessness, and negligence. Criminal laws, like murder or manslaughter, require prosecutors to prove that the defendant did the act with the specified mental state.

Unfortunately, poorly worded criminal laws sometimes skip this step, but nevertheless seem to suggest that a culpable state of mind is somehow important. This makes it ambiguous whether you can be convicted under the law.

The Solution: An Implied Mental State Requirement

One of Maine's statutes that deal with culpable states of mind provides a solution to this problem. Knowing that there will come a time when a poorly-written criminal statute will come up that requires a confusing state of mind for a conviction, the lawmakers who wrote 17-A M.R.S. § 34(1) provide an escape plan: The statute's state of mind requirement is satisfied by intentional or knowing conduct.

The rule provided by § 34(1) is like a life vest for courts who have to interpret confusing laws on a daily basis because it gives them something to fall back on when the criminal statute at issue is fraught with ambiguity and prosecutors are trying to convict you for something you didn't do.

Maine Criminal Defense Attorney William T. Bly

Issues like culpable states of mind and poorly-written criminal statutes are not something that you have to worry about if you've hired William T. Bly to be your criminal defense attorney. His knowledge of criminal law and experience in the courtrooms of Maine allow him to advocate for your rights and interests by turning all of these ambiguities to your advantage. Contact him online or call his law office at (207) 571-8146 for the legal help you need to beat a criminal charge you do not deserve.

About the Author

William Bly

William T. Bly, Esq. is a graduate of Rutgers College where he majored in Political Science with a minor in U.S. History. Attorney Bly attended and graduated the University of Maine School of Law. During his time in law school, Attorney Bly focused on criminal defense.

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