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3.4: Accidental Criminals

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    Most people attempt to obey the law in their daily lives, but what happens when someone unintentionally commits a crime? A mistake or moment of not paying attention could lead to someone breaking the law without even realizing what they have done. Breaking the law, whether accidentally or intentionally, can lead to serious consequences if the person is found guilty, so it is important to understand the law.

    Accident vs Intent

    Mens Rea is a legal term that refers to the mental condition in which a person needs to be in to establish whether or not they committed a crime intentionally. A person that accidentally walks off with another person’s jacket in a public area will most likely have a very similar jacket themselves in the same location. The person lacking Mens Rea (criminal mind) would attempt to find the real owner of the jacket once they realize their mistake. By contrast, a person that takes a jacket that he has never seen before, puts it on and then leaves is most likely aware that it does not belong to him and had the criminal intent.

    A parent pushing their crying baby through a department store may place items on the stroller with the intent to purchase the items. While tending to the child and attempting to pay for other items, they might forget about the items on the stroller and leave the store without paying for them. Once the parent realizes their mistake, if they are innocent they will most likely return the property to the store, thus throwing in doubt intent and lending credibility to it being an accident.

    Sometimes minor crimes will be excused if the officer, prosecutor or judge determines them to be accidental, however there are some laws that end in prosecution regardless of the circumstances or intent. Driving under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance is an example of Strict Liability. Strict Liability laws do not require criminal liability. Anyone committing the action can be arrested or prosecuted even if they did so unwittingly.

    A man might decide to have two glasses of whiskey with dinner and then drive his car to take his date home, believing that he has only consumed a small amount of alcohol and will not be over the legal limit. However, the glasses of whiskey may have been larger than standard servings. A person found operating a vehicle while over the legal alcohol limit will always be prosecuted. Bartenders that unknowingly serve alcohol to minors are also liable to be prosecuted for their actions even if they did not intend to break the law.

    An example of a strict-liability prosecution occurred in New Mexico in 1996, Bobby Unser, a three-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, went snowmobiling with a friend. A snowstorm blew in causing whiteout conditions, resulting in Unser and his friend becoming trapped. After two full days and nights, the men found a building with a phone, and called for help. Unser informed the U.S. Forest Service of the incident and was prosecuted for entering a wilderness area even though there was no intent he planned to violate the law. Unser was convicted and fined by a United States Federal Court District Judge. The conviction was appealed and upheld by the Appellate Court.

    3.4: Accidental Criminals is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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