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Utah Code 76-2-101 - Actus Reus and Mens Rea

The Utah criminal code generally follows the traditional common law rule which requires elements of both conduct and mental state in order to support a conviction for a criminal offense. The concepts of prohibited conduct and criminal mental state are often referred to by the Latin terms "actus reus" (a guilty act) and "mens rea" (a guilty mind).

In the civil courts, it is common for liability to be imposed without regard to whether a party to the action intended or even knew that their conduct was wrong. The conduct itself is often sufficient to support a civil judgment. But in the criminal courts, the general rule is that the evidence must support proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant both committed the wrongful act, and had the required mental state when the act was committed.

Intentionally, Knowingly, Recklessly, or with Criminal Negligence

Under Utah criminal law, the mens rea requirement can be met by proof that the defendant acted intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence. If the statute establishing a given crime does not state a mental intent requirement, then proof of at least recklessness is required to satisfy the mens rea element. (See Utah Code 76-2-102.) These mens rea elements are defined under Utah Code 76-2-103 as follows:

Intentionally: A defendant acts intentionally or willfully with regard to conduct or a specific result of that conduct when it is the defendant's "conscious objective or desire to engage in the conduct or cause the result."

Knowingly: A defendant acts knowingly with regard to conduct or the circumstances surrounding the defendant's conduct when the defendant is consciously "aware of the nature of his conduct or the existing circumstances." A defendant is considered to act knowingly with regard to the result of certain conduct when the defendant "is aware that his conduct is reasonably certain to cause" the required result.

Recklessly: A defendant acts recklessly with regard either to conduct or a specific result of that conduct when the defendant is "aware of but consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk" that certain circumstances exist or that a required result will occur. In evaluating the risk involved, a fact finder must determine that the risk is "of such a nature and degree that its disregard constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that an ordinary person would exercise under all the circumstances as viewed from the actor's standpoint."

Criminal Negligence: A defendant is criminally negligent when the defendant "ought to be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the circumstances exist or the result will occur." Unlike recklessness, criminal negligence does not require proof that the defendant was actually aware of the risk. Instead, criminal negligence requires only proof that the defendant's "failure to perceive [the risk] constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that an ordinary person would exercise in all the circumstances as viewed from the actor's standpoint."

If a statute fails to specify a mens rea requirement, then Utah Code 76-2-102 provides that the prosecutor must prove, at a minimum, that the defendant acted with recklessness. Criminal negligence alone will support the mens rea requirement only if the statute specifically provides that negligent conduct is sufficient.

General Intent v. Specific Intent Crimes

Criminal charges are sometimes classified as either "general intent" or "specific intent" crimes.

A general intent crime is one in which the prosecutor must only prove that the person committed the act, and did so either intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence. An example of a general intent crime is "negligent homicide." Under Utah Code 76-5-206, a person is guilty of negligent homicide if the person commits any act "with criminal negligence" and by doing so, "causes the death of another." There is no requirement of any proof that the defendant intended to cause death. Instead, the only mens rea evidence required is proof that the defendant's conduct was criminally negligent.

A specific intent crime requires proof not only of the general mens rea, but also some additional intent element. Theft is an example of a specific intent crime. In order to prove theft under Utah Code 76-6-404, a prosecutor must prove that the defendant exercised unauthorized control over the property of another, and also that the defendant had the specific intent to permanently deprive the owner of that property. Unless the evidence shows that the defendant had the specific purpose to deprive the owner of the property, proof that the defendant's actions were merely unauthorized is not sufficient to support a charge of theft.

Strict Liability - An Exception to the Rule

Utah criminal law provides an exception to the general rule requiring proof of a necessary mental state. Certain offenses have been defined under Utah criminal law as requiring only proof of the prohibited conduct, without regard to the defendant's intent or state of mind. Such offenses are sometimes referred to as "strict liability" offenses.

Utah Code 76-2-101 provides that if an offense involves strict liability, then there is no requirement of proof that the defendant acted intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligent. Utah Code 76-2-101(2) specifically exempts sections of the Utah Traffic Code found in Title 41, Chapter 6a from the ordinary mens rea requirements of criminal responsibility. For other crimes to qualify as strict liability offenses, Utah Code 76-2-103 requires that the statute defining the offense must clearly indicate "a legislative purpose to impose criminal responsibility for commission of the conduct prohibited by the statute without requiring proof of any culpable mental state."

Finding a Utah Criminal Defense Attorney in Salt Lake City

Salt Lake Defense AttorneyIf you have been charged with a crime, having the assistance of an experienced criminal attorney can be critical. Based in Salt Lake City, criminal defense lawyer Stephen Howard has successfully protected his clients' rights in cases ranging from aggravated murder to shoplifting, and virtually everything in between. Mr. Howard provides legal services to clients throughout Utah.

Contact us today to arrange for an initial confidential consultation.

Utah Code 76-2-105 - Transferred Intent
Utah Code 76-2-202 - Accomplice Liability

Utah Code 76-2-304 - Mistake of Fact and Ignorance of Law Defenses
More Utah Criminal Code Provisions

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Attorney Stephen Howard practices as part of the Canyons Law Group, LLC and Stephen W. Howard, PC.

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560 South 300 East, Suite 200, Salt Lake City, UT 84111
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