When a defendant is charged with a crime involving the possession of a controlled substance, what kind of knowledge or intent must the prosecution show? Must the state prove that the defendant knew that he or she possessed the substance? That the defendant knew that the substance was legally controlled? That the defendant knew the particular identity of the substance? Given the proliferation of controlled substances and the fact that many cannot be distinguished without laboratory equipment, these are important questions. Continue reading
Tag Archives: mens rea
When is Ignorance of the Law an Excuse?
An ancient maxim of the law is ignorantia juris non excusat, or ignorance of the law does not excuse. Put another way, it is presumed that the public knows the laws, and a defense of ignorance is typically not allowed. This principle is at the heart of the recent decision by the state supreme court in State v. Miller, ___ N.C. ___, (June 9, 2017). Continue reading →
Strict Liability Crimes
In prior posts, I discussed transferred intent and criminal negligence. Intent and criminal negligence, along with malice and willfulness are some of the common states of mind that the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt to obtain a criminal conviction. With strict liability crimes, the prosecution’s case is easier. Strict liability crimes do not include a mental state as an element of the offense. To obtain a conviction for a strict liability crime, the State need only prove that the defendant committed the prohibited act. Also, certain defenses are unavailable for strict liability offenses. See, e.g., State v. Harris, 171 N.C. App. 127, 131 (2005) (voluntary intoxication is not a defense to a strict liability crime).
Identifying strict liability statutory offenses would be easy if the General Assembly expressly identified crimes as strict liability offenses. However, that does not happen. When a statutory offense is enacted and omits a mental state as an element, the courts must determine whether the legislative intent was to create a strict liability crime. State v. Watterson, __ N.C. App. __, 679 S.E.2d 897, 899 (2009) (“Whether a criminal intent is a necessary element of a statutory offense is a matter of construction to be determined from the language of the statute in view of its manifest purpose and design.”). The North Carolina courts have had several occasions to undertake such an analysis. Among the crimes that our courts have identified as strict liability offenses are:
- G.S. 14-27.2 (first-degree statutory rape). State v. Anthony, 351 N.C. 611, 616 (2000); State v. Rose, 312 N.C. 441, 445 (1984); State v. Ainsworth, 109 N.C. App. 136, 145 (1993) (“Criminal mens rea is not an element of statutory rape.”).
- G.S. 14-27.4 (first-degree statutory sexual offense). See Anthony, 351 N.C. at 616-18.
- G.S. 14-27.7A (statutory rape or sexual offense of a person who is 13, 14, or 15 years old). Anthony, 351 N.C. at 616-18; State v. Browning, 177 N.C. App. 487, 491 (2006) (“Statutory rape under [G.S.] 14-27.7A is a strict liability crime.”); State v. Sines, 158 N.C. App. 79, 84 (2003).
- G.S. 14-269.2 (posses or carry weapons on campus or other educational property). State v. Haskins, 160 N.C. App. 349 (2003).
- G.S. 14-288.8 (possession, etc., of a weapon of mass death and destruction). Watterson, __ N.C. App. __, 679 S.E.2d at 899-903 (the State was not required to prove that the defendant knew the physical characteristics of the shotguns that made them unlawful (barrels of less than eighteen inches)).
Although failure to comply with sex offender registration requirements under G.S. 14-208.11 was at one time interpreted as a strict liability crime, State v. Bryant, 359 N.C. 554, 562 (2005), the statute has been amended, S.L. 2006-247, sec. 8(a), and now requires that the defendant act willfully.
Strict liability crimes often are thought of as minor offenses with relatively light punishment in the area of public health, safety and welfare. However, as the above list indicates, North Carolina’s strict liability crimes include felonies that carry significant punishment. See Watterson, __ N.C. App. __, 679 S.E.2d at 903 (noting that the General Assembly has imposed “fairly harsh” punishments for strict liability offenses). The courts have rejected policy arguments that strict liability should not attach for serious crimes, indicating that such arguments more appropriately are addressed to the General Assembly, the state’s lawmaking body. See Anthony, 351 N.C. at 618; Browning, 177 N.C. App. at 493-94.
The United States Supreme Court has recognized that legislatures may enact strict liability crimes. Lambert v. California, 355 U.S. 225, 228 (1957) (“conduct alone without regard to intent of the doer is often sufficient” for criminal liability; “[t]here is wide latitude in the lawmakers to declare an offense and to exclude elements of knowledge and diligence from its definition”). In North Carolina, constitutional challenges to the imposition of strict liability have failed. Haskins, 160 N.C. App. at 353 (rejecting the defendant’s argument that without a mens rea element, G.S. 14-269.2 violates Equal Protection); Ainsworth, 109 N.C. App. at 145 (rejecting the defendant’s argument that the constitution requires that statutory rape include some mens rea). However, when the strict liability crime involves wholly passive conduct, due process may require that the defendant have notice of the criminality of his or her conduct. Bryant, 359 N.C. 554 (regarding G.S. 14-208.11, which at one point was a strict liability crime).
If a defendant is prosecuted as an aider and abettor to a strict liability crime, a mental state is required. Put another way, “North Carolina case law does not support a theory of vicarious strict liability.” State v. Bowman, 188 N.C. App. 635, 649 (2008) (“[a]lthough statutory rape is a strict liability crime, aiding and abetting statutory rape is not”). Thus, in Bowman, 188 N.C. App. 635, the court of appeals held that the trial court erred by denying the defendant’s request for an instruction that defendant had to know the age of the victims in order to be convicted of aiding and abetting statutory rape. If the defendant is prosecuted for an attempt to commit a strict liability crime, the elements of attempt require intent. Sines, 158 N.C. App. at 85. However, the intent element for an attempted strict liability crime appears to be less stringent than the intent element for aiding and abetting a strict liability crime. In Sines, 158 N.C. App. 79, for example, the court of appeals stated that to be convicted of attempted statutory sexual offense, the defendant must intend to engage in a sexual act. Sines held: attempted statutory sexual offense does not require that the defendant intended to commit a sexual act with an underage person, but only that defendant intended to commit a sexual act with the victim; thus, a defendant’s knowledge of victim’s age or victim’s consent are not defenses to the crime of attempted statutory sexual offense. Id. at 85.
Criminal negligence (sometimes called culpable negligence) means recklessness or carelessness that shows a thoughtless disregard of consequences or a heedless indifference to the safety and rights of others. State v. Jones, 353 N.C. 159 (2000); State v. Early, 232 N.C. 717, 720 (1950). The showing required to establish criminal negligence is less than the level of recklessness required to show malice for purposes of second-degree murder. State v. Mack, ___ N.C. App. ___, 697 S.E.2d 490, 494 (2010) (comparing culpable negligence to malice and concluding that for purposes of second-degree murder, the conduct must be done recklessly or wantonly as to manifest depravity of mind and disregard of human life). It is, however, more than the deviation from reasonable conduct required for civil tort liability. State v. Everhart, 291 N.C. 700, 702 (1977); State v. McAdams, 51 N.C. App. 140 (1981).
Examples of cases in which the evidence was sufficient to establish culpable negligence include:
- A juvenile failed to render aid with due caution to a victim who became sick after ingesting a drug provided by the juvenile and after the juvenile undertook some efforts to provide help. In Re Z.A.K., 189 N.C. App. 354, 359-60 (2008).
- When the defendant attempted to remove a bullet from a gun he was unloading, the gun went off, fatally shooting another person in the room. State v. Replogle, 181 N.C. App. 579 (2007); see also McAdams, 51 N.C. App. at 142 (with a loaded rifle pointing at his wife, the defendant attempted to force the rifle’s bolt forward by slamming it, causing the weapon to fire, killing the wife).
- After being ordered by an officer to exit his truck, the defendant continued driving while the officer held on to the truck door; the defendant hit the officer, attempting to knock him off the truck and the officer ultimately was struck by the truck. State v. Spellman, 167 N.C. App. 374 (2004); see also State v. Kaley, 343 N.C. 107, 110 (1997) (culpable negligence occurred when an accomplice drove a vehicle while the victim was outside the car but being held by the defendant, a front seat passenger).
- The defendant attempted to knock a loaded and “cocked” gun from another’s hand and scuffled for control of the gun, at which time the gun went off, killing the other person. State v. Reynolds, 160 N.C. App. 579 (2003).
In contrast to these cases are others in which the evidence was insufficient to establish culpable negligence. See, e.g., Everhart, 291 N.C. 700 (no evidence of culpable negligence when the defendant, a young girl with a 72 I.Q. gave birth to a baby unassisted and while lying on the floor and then dropped the baby while trying to put him on a bed; thinking the baby was dead, the defendant wrapped the baby in a blanket; a medical expert concluded that the baby was accidentally smothered or died of neonatal respiratory failure (the failure to have proper stimulation to cause continued breathing)).
Criminal negligence also may be established by an intentional, willful, or wanton violation of a statute designed for the protection of human life or limb. Jones, 353 N.C. at 165. For example, in State v. Powell, 336 N.C. 762 (1994), the defendant left his dogs unattended and not restrained and restricted to his property by fence in violation of Section 3-18 of the Winston-Salem Code, and the violation was intentional, willful or wanton. This was found to be sufficient evidence of culpable negligence in an involuntary manslaughter prosecution brought after the dogs killed a jogger. Id. at 771-73. The issue of whether culpable negligence is established by a safety statute violation arises most frequently in impaired driving cases. In that regard, the courts have repeatedly held that G.S. 20-138.1, the statute prohibiting drivers from operating motor vehicles while under the influence of impairing substances, is a safety statute designed for the protection of human life and limb and its violation constitutes culpable negligence as a matter of law. Jones, 353 N.C. at 165. Other motor vehicle safety statutes that can give rise to culpable negligence include G.S. 20-141 (speed restrictions) and G.S. 20-146 (drive on right side of highway). Jones, 353 N.C. at 165. When a safety statute is unintentionally violated, culpable negligence exists where the violation is “accompanied by recklessness of probable consequences of a dangerous nature, when tested by the rule of reasonable [foreseeability], amounting altogether to a thoughtless disregard of consequences or of a heedless indifference to the safety of others.” Id. (quotation omitted).
Culpable negligence sometimes is stated as an element of an offense. See Replogle, 181 N.C. App. at 581 (defining involuntary manslaughter to include culpable negligence); G.S. 14-32.2 (defining patient abuse to include certain culpably negligent conduct). For other offenses, the courts have held that the requisite intent can be implied from culpable negligence. Jones, 353 N.C. at 166 (so noting as to assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury and assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill); Spellman, 167 N.C. App. at 384 (so noting as to assaults and so holding as to assault with a deadly weapon on a government official); State v. Oakman, 191 N.C. App. 796 (2008) (same as to felonious child abuse). However, culpable negligence cannot be used to imply the necessary intent for first-degree felony murder. Jones, 353 N.C. 159 (explaining that for felony murder, an actual intent to commit the underlying felony is required).
Finally, a small number of North Carolina Crimes require only negligence, not criminal negligence. Although there are no cases on point, these statutes presumably incorporate the civil law negligence standard of failure to use due care. They include:
- G.S. 14-137 (willfully or negligently setting fire to woods and fields).
- G.S. 14-157 (felling trees on telephone and electric power wires).
- G.S. 14-241 (disposing of public documents).
- G.S. 14-359 (tenant neglecting crop).
- G.S. 14-418 (prohibited handling of reptiles or suggesting or inducing others to handle).
Suppose a defendant acts intending to do one thing but ends up doing something else. For example, suppose the defendant shoots at A, intending to kill A, but misses and kills B, an innocent bystander. Is the defendant criminally liable for the unintended harm to B? Under the doctrine of transferred intent, the answer is yes.
The doctrine of transferred intent provides that when a defendant intends to harm victim A, but ends up harming victim B, the defendant’s criminal liability is determined with respect to his or her intent and conduct towards A. State v. Davis, 349 N.C. 1, 27 (1998) (quoting State v. Wynn, 278 N.C. 513, 519 (1971). If B is killed, the defendant is guilty or innocent exactly as if the fatal act had killed A. Id. (quoting Wynn, 278 N.C. at 519). As it is sometimes said, “intent follows the bullet.” Id. (quoting Wynn, 278 N.C. at 519). Thus, under the doctrine, it does not matter whether the defendant intended to injure B; the defendant need only act with the required intent toward someone (here A). Id. at 38. There are a number of North Carolina cases on point including State v. Locklear, 331 N.C. 239, 244-46 (1992) (doctrine applied as to charge of assault with intent to kill B, who was shot by the defendant while he was shooting to kill B’s mother), Davis, 349 N.C. at 37-39 (an instruction on transferred intent was proper when the defendant engaged in a shooting spree, intending to harm company management but harming another person who happened to be present in the office at the time), and State v. Goode, 197 N.C. App. 543, 550-51 (2009) (instruction on transferred intent was proper as to a charge of attempted murder of B when the defendant drove a car into A and B, intending to kill A). Also, the there is a pattern jury instruction on point. N.C. Pattern Jury Instruction – Criminal 104.13 (“If the defendant intended to harm one person but actually harmed a different person, the legal effect would be the same as if the defendant had harmed the intended victim.”); see also Davis, 349 N.C. at 38 (it is not necessary that the person the defendant intended to harm be named in the jury instructions).
In North Carolina, the doctrine of transferred intent is not limited to situations where an unintended victim suffers harm. Under North Carolina law, the doctrine also permits a conviction when the defendant intended one type of harm but caused another type of harm. Specifically, cases have held that under this doctrine, a defendant may be convicted of discharging a firearm into occupied property when the defendant intended to shoot a person but ended up shooting into property that he or she knew was occupied. State v. Fletcher, 125 N.C. App. 505, 512-13 (1997); State v. Small, ___ N.C. App. ___, 689 S.E.2d 444 (2009). However, application of the doctrine in this context is not without controversy. As a general rule, an intention to cause one type of harm cannot serve as a substitute for a requirement of intention as to another type of harm). 1 Wayne R. LaFave, Substantive Criminal Law 350 & 458-60 (2003). Under this general rule, for example, if a defendant intentionally steals a gas meter out of a house, and as a result a woman is made ill by the escaping gas, the defendant’s intent to steal does not suffice to establish an intent to injure another. Id. at 458-59 (but going on to note that the defendant might be guilty of injuring another in these circumstances if the injury to another offense requires only recklessness or criminal negligence). Of course, exceptions exist, most notably, the felony-murder rule. If while robbing a store with a firearm, the defendant’s firearm goes off, killing bystander A, the felony-murder doctrine allows the defendant to be convicted for A’s murder. See Jessica Smith, North Carolina Crimes: A Guidebook on the Elements of Crime 68 (6th Ed. 2007). The felony-murder rule, however, derives from a statutory definition of murder. See G.S. 14-17 (defining murder). The North Carolina cases extending the doctrine of transferred intent from situations where an unintended victim suffers to harm to those where an unintended type of harm occurs did not note the general rule discussed above or acknowledge that their rulings constituted an expansion of the doctrine of transferred intent.
If you have encountered the doctrine of transferred intent in other contexts or have thoughts on these issues, please post a comment sharing your experience and ideas.