Most crimes require prosecutors to establish mens rea, or a guilty mind, in order to prove a defendant is guilty of a crime. In contrast, strict liability crimes do not require the defendant to have a culpable mental state of mind when committing the crime to be guilty. Criminal strict liability is generally limited to minor offenses, such as misdemeanors and infractions.
A good example of a strict liability crime is selling alcohol to a minor. Let's say you own a liquor store and are diligent about checking IDs. A customer who looks older than 21 comes in. Their ID confirms that they're of legal drinking age. Unfortunately, it's a very good fake ID, and a police officer who happens to be in the store sees you sell the customer the alcohol. While you had no intention of selling alcohol to an underage person, you may still be charged if your state classifies selling alcohol to a minor as a strict liability crime.
Read on to understand how strict liability crimes compare in criminal vs. civil cases.
Comparing Strict Liability in Civil vs. Criminal Cases
When you hear the term "strict liability," it's usually in the context of a civil case. More specifically, strict liability claims most often come into play in product liability cases when a defective product causes injury to a plaintiff. In a civil strict liability case, the plaintiff doesn't have to prove that the defendant acted in a careless or reckless manner. For example, if a jurisdiction follows a strict liability theory for dog bites, the dog owner will be financially liable for dog bite injuries regardless of how careful they were with their dog.
Strict Liability vs. 'Intent' Crimes
Crimes can be divided into a variety of categories, based on the mental state required of the offender. More specifically, criminal offenses can be divided into three criminal intent categories:
- General intent: These crimes require that a defendant intended to perform a particular act, as opposed to intending a certain result. A DUI, for example, is a general intent crime. A driver doesn't have to intend to drive drunk—they just have to be under the influence while driving. However, the defendant has to intend to drink alcohol before doing so.
- Specific intent: These crimes require that a defendant had the specific intent of committing the particular criminal acts that constitute a crime. A prime example of a specific intent crime is first-degree murder.
- Strict liability: As previously mentioned, these crimes don't require any intent, or often knowledge, on the part of the offender.
A crime's criminal intent category is important. It affects the elements that a prosecutor must establish to convict a person of a particular crime. In other words, criminal law requires the prosecutor to prove that the defendant fulfilled all elements of the crime, including the required mental state. In contrast, strict liability crimes do not require a prosecutor to establish the defendant's mental state in order to prove they're guilty.
Examples of Strict Liability Offenses
The most common example of a strict liability crime is statutory rape, which is when an adult has sexual intercourse with a minor. Statutory rape is considered a strict liability crime because most states don't require the defendant to intend, or know, that they were engaging in sexual relations with a person under the age of consent.
Most traffic violations are also classified as strict liability crimes. For example, a driver can get a speeding ticket whether or not they were aware that they were speeding. Another example of a traffic offense that doesn't require intent is an overdue parking meter.
Have Specific Questions About Strict Liability Offenses? Ask a Local Criminal Defense Lawyer
In order to be convicted of a crime, the prosecution must prove all the elements in the criminal statute beyond a reasonable doubt. To learn more about the elements of the crime you've been charged with, speak with a skilled criminal defense attorney near you.