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Intent is an important element of criminal law and most crimes have an intent element, called mens rea. This refers to a defendant's mental state.
A defendant must have the requisite intent to be convicted of a crime -- an act alone will usually not suffice. So if you shoot someone with no intent to kill, that is not murder. The requisite mental state, coupled with the defendant's actions, is needed for a conviction for most crimes, and a statute that fails to articulate a defendant's mental state may be challenged.
That is what happened to stalking laws in Illinois, which were recently found unconstitutional.
Illinois stalking laws were challenged before and they survived. But in a recent case, arising from alleged physical and electronic stalking, an appeals court found a key ingredient was missing. The state's stalking laws lacked a necessary intent element.
In Illinois v. Relerford a defendant was accused of stalking for repeated contacts with a woman at a Christian radio station where he wanted to be an intern. Based on the evidence revealed in the case, the accused was not trying to frighten the woman, although he did not always communicate appropriately.
The problem with the Illinois stalking law, the defendant argued, was that he was being convicted based on the victim's feeling about his communications rather than his intentions with respect to her. Relerford did not have to actually intend to cause emotional suffering to another person with the activities. Instead, Illinois law demanded only that the defendant "know or should have known" his actions would cause a reasonable person to suffer.
If that seems like a small point that doesn't matter much and you don't understand the fuss, you're probably not alone. But the difference does matter quite a lot. Relerford was convicted based on the victim's feelings and not based on the intention of the accused to hurt her.
The Illinois Appeals Court wrote, "Accordingly, we hold that ... the general stalking statute, of which defendant was convicted and sentenced, lacks a mens rea requirement and is therefore facially unconstitutional under the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment." The stalking statutes will now no doubt need to be rewritten.
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