This post originally appeared on the Right on Crime blog on October 3, 2017.
Senator Orrin Hatch brought the issue of over-criminalization to the Senate floor Monday afternoon. With the ever-increasing number of regulations on the books, he underscored the importance of ‘criminal intent,’ legally referred to as mens rea, in our justice system. Senator Hatch has brought this issue before Congress in previous years in attempt to better protect unsuspecting Americans from being prosecuted for unwittingly violating federal regulations. The lack of mens rea protections has allowed countless Americans to be convicted, and even jailed, for acts that that most people don’t even know carry legal consequences. As a prime example, Senator Hatch pointed out in his TIME op-ed that Americans can be both fined and imprisoned for improper use of Smokey the Bear’s likeness. What criminal intent could a person possibly possess in that case? Hatch is skeptical.
In regards to the importance of criminal intent when making federal regulations, Senator Hatch has been tirelessly taking up this battle for the past three years. In 2015, he defended the need for a default mens rea requirement in federal law and rulemaking. In continuation of those same efforts, he spoke in 2016 of the injustice of convicting individuals for seemingly innocent acts. Now in 2017, Senator Hatch has taken this issue to the Senate floor for a third time:
“One of the time-honored, fundamental features of our criminal law, is that for a person to be found guilty of a crime, he or she must have committed the act with criminal intent or mens rea… Unfortunately, many of our criminal laws and regulations contain inadequate mens rea requirements and some contain no mens rea requirements at all. This leaves innocent individuals subject and vulnerable to prosecution for conduct they believe to be lawful at the time.”
The criminal justice system should work to protect Americans from criminal activity. It should not, however, overly regulate Americans to the point of costly criminal charges for innocent actions. It is the shared opinion of Senator Orrin Hatch and Right on Crime that criminal justice reform cannot be fully achieved without ensuring that the law carefully outlines who’s truly guilty of a crime in the first place. Mens rea reform would go a long way in accomplishing this.
You can read the official press release here.