FAQ - How to Read Criminal Statutes

Discussion in 'Use of the Law Forum & News' started by Michael Wechsler, Sep 2, 2001.

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  1. Michael Wechsler

    Michael Wechsler Law Topic Starter Administrator Staff Member

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    How to Read Criminal Statutes

    All criminal statutes contain two key elements that ultimately determine whether or not a statute has been violated and a crime committed. Those two elements are (1) the level of the “mens rea” or “guilty mind” and (2) the “actus reus” or “bad act” that was committed. An individual can only be convicted of a violation of law if both elements occur. The law punishes people in proportion to the level of “guilt” their mind had when that person committed the crime, as well as the severity of the bad act. The law punishes more severely a person who has intent to commit a crime than a person whose negligent acts resulted in a violation of law. The law also punishes someone more severely for an act with greater consequences, such as murder, than one with lesser consequences, such as a person who steals money rather than life.

    Let us start with the “bad act” element of a crime since it is easier to identify than the “guilty mind” element. The bad act is the actual act that must be committed in order to be found guilty of a crime. Let’s take a look at a section of the New York manslaughter statute as an example.

    Section 125.15 of the New York Penal Law, Manslaughter in the second degree, states “[a] person is guilty of manslaughter in the second degree when he recklessly causes the death of another person… Manslaughter in the second degree is a class C felony.”

    Section 125.20 of the New York Penal Law, Manslaughter in the first degree, states “[a] person is guilty of manslaughter in the first degree when with intent to cause serious physical injury to another person, he causes the death of such person or of a third person… Manslaughter in the first degree is a class B felony.”

    In both instances of manslaughter, the bad act is the one that causes the death of a person. The person must die and it is not sufficient that the person is merely seriously injured – which may fall under an attempted murder statute but not manslaughter.

    The “guilty mind” element is not always so easy to identify and distinguish and also explains why the wording regarding the bad act in each statute appears differently in each case. Manslaughter in the first degree requires an intentional act to cause serious physical injury while manslaughter in the second degree requires a reckless act. If David swung a baseball bat at Victor intending to seriously injure Victor, David would be guilty of manslaughter in the first degree if Victor died as a result of being struck by David’s fatal blow. Note that David would also be found guilty if, while intending to strike Victor and cause serious physical injury to Victor, David strikes Victoria, a passerby who ultimately dies as a result of the blow. If David threw a baseball bat out of a window in a ten story building that struck Victor walking on the sidewalk below and causes Victor’s death, David would be guilty of manslaughter in the second degree.

    Summary: In order to be guilty of a particular crime, you must have had, under that statute: (1) the requisite level of intent required (e.g. your intentional, reckless, or negligent act) and (2) an act that occurred (e.g. the death of a person as a result of your action).

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    Last edited: Sep 3, 2001
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