What Does "Mens Rea" Mean?

It is a general rule that a criminal offense consists of both an act (or omission or failure to act) and a criminal state of mind. This criminal state of mind is sometimes called a “guilty mind” or the more legal term, “mens rea”. Essentially, in order to be guilty of a certain crime, you must have committed the required act(s) of that crime and have been in the required state of mind while committed the act, if a mens rea was specified. Crimes that do not require any mens rea are referred to as “strict liability crimes”, as they only depend on the actions and their consequences.

The necessary state of mind varies depending on the offense, and often you will see offense categories that are more or less severe on the basis of state of mind. For example, a crime may require that the defendant acted “willfully” and another may have near-exact wording but change willfully to “negligently”.

These definitions for states of mind are quite confusing and lack precision on paper, which makes them even more difficult to defend given the breadth of interpretation people can have. Below we will describe the various terms used to denote state of mind in North Carolina to help you better understand what might constitute a certain crime.

theater sad and happy masks, denoting emotions which are part of state of mind, or the legal concept of mens rea


Certain crimes require that the defendant acted with a purpose or intent to do something criminal. There are two main forms of intent a person could have when committing a crime:

  • General Intent: Most intentional crimes only require that a person intended to commit a criminal act. For example, for the crime of “Child Abuse – Inflicting Serious Bodily Injury or Mental or Emotional Injury“, the defendant must be guilty of intentionally assaulting a child and that the assault results in serious bodily injury or long-term loss or impairment of mental or emotional function. However, the resulting injury does not need to be intentional fora person to be guilty of this crime.
  • Specific Intent: A smaller number of crimes include a specific mental element the defendant must have intended for there to be a specific outcome. For example, the main difference between first degree murder and second-degree murder is that a person must have had the specific intent to kill their victim to be guilty of first-degree murder. A person can be guilty of second-degree murder if they had the general intent to assault the victim, but the assault resulting in the victim’s death. Specific intent does not require that the intended result was successfully executed, as for example “Assault with a deadly weapon with attempt to kill” requires specific intent to kill, but the victim must have survived.

The above categories may seem to conflict the traditional view of intent that most people have, since we often think of intent being about a desired outcome. So why do we have a concept like general intent,

How is Intent Determined?

The above categories may seem to conflict the traditional view of intent that most people have, since we often think of intent being about a desired outcome. For example, burglary crimes require that the defendant intended to steal or commit a felony, but burglars generally want to possess items of value, and burglarizing is just the means to that end. So why does a category like general intent exist, and why does it apply to most intentional crimes? Does it mean North Carolina law wants to go after people doing crimes for the sake of crime itself?

Not quite — the matter is a more practical one, because intent can be proven circumstantially and inferred from certain facts. As facts related to carrying out a crime are far more tangible and easy to prove than facts related to a person’s desires, most crimes require general intent tied to the action, not specific intent for an outcome. Essentially, when a criminal act has certain natural and predictable outcomes, we can presume any person committing such act intended for those outcomes.

Below are some examples of how intent (specific or general) can be inferred from circumstantial evidence:

  • Intent to kill can be inferred from the nature of an assault and conduct of those involved, such as beating a helpless victim for hours, or repeatedly swinging or aiming a deadly weapon against an unarmed victim. 
  • Intent to traffic drugs is presumed based on drug quantities in possession, and can also be inferred from packaging, labeling and storage of controlled substances in a way that indicates intent to sell and distribute.
  • Circumstantial evidence for intent to embezzle can be inferred from any clearly deliberate wrongful transferring of funds and personal financial trouble.
  • Felony indecent exposure, which requires that a person expose their genitalia to a minor in a public place for the purpose of gratifying sexual desire, which can be proven circumstantially if the defendant engaged in sexually provocative behavior, or had a pattern of past predatory behavior.


“Knowingly” may seem rather straight-forward, in that it requires a person to have known what they were doing or omitting, but there are some caveats. Most crimes that require the defendant acted knowingly rely on subjective knowledge, or knowledge that pertains to the defendant specifically. For example, if a person is filing a health insurance claim and omits mentioning medical conditions they know they have when asked for that information, then they knowingly committed insurance fraud.

There are some things that are considered objective knowledge that any person should reasonably know. For example, a person is guilty of second degree rape if they had vaginal intercourse with a mentally disabled individual, and the defendant knew or reasonably should have known of the victim’s disability. The “reasonably should have known” part refers to objective knowledge, which can be proven with evidence that any reasonably person, not just the defendant, should have known the relevant fact given the circumstances.

Another interesting caveat to crimes committed “knowingly” is the doctrine of “willful blindness“, as described below.

Willful Blindness and Inferred Knowledge

The doctrine of willful blindness allows the court determine that a person had knowledge related to committing a criminal offense if there is evidence that he or she deliberately chose to remain ignorant of illegal activity. The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that this doctrine is not consistent with North Carolina law, so it is technically not in use in this state. However, North Carolina law allows for knowledge to be inferred, which is actually much broader than the concept of willful blindness. With inferred knowledge, prosecution does not need to prove that the defendant deliberately remained ignorant to certain facts, they just need to show that the defendant knew something that would infer that they had known or should have known the facts relevant to the crime. For example, if a defendant is facing charges with tax evasion and was successfully contacted by the authorities to make corrections or submit further information but did not follow through, it can be inferred that they knowingly committed an offense.


“Willfully” either means committing a wrongful act without a legal excuse or justification, or acting purposely and deliberately to violate the law.

While this definition does appear to be similar to how “intentionally” is defined in North Carolina, there is a subtle, but important, difference. When a person commits a crime intentionally, they are aware of what they are doing and have bad intentions, such as acting in self-interest at great expense to others. When a person commits a crime willfully, they do not need to have bad intentions, but they must simply be acting deliberately and the court must rule their justification is not legally valid.

Whether a reason is considered a legal excuse or justification is a matter of arguing it before court and courts setting a potential precedent for similar cases. For example, in a 1974 case involving willful cruelty to an animal, the defendant was deemed justified in the alleged abuse because they did so in a “good faith” effort to train the animal. Such a ruling may or may not be used as precedent for similar modern cases, especially as the relevant laws evolve.


The term “wantonly” is most often associated with negligence, or a conscious and intentional disregard or indifference to the rights and safety of others. According to the North Carolina Supreme Court, the mental state of doing something “wantonly” is essentially the same as willfully. Both terms are used in North Carolina law, and sometimes even within the same statute.


Malice is somewhat of a special state of mind because it is specifically used in defining homicide crimes in North Carolina to distinguish murder from manslaughter. In North Carolina there are three possible meanings of malice:

  1. The act was done with ill will, hatred, or spite.
  2. The act that caused death is inherently dangerous to human life and is done so recklessly and wantonly that is reflects disregard of life and social duty.
  3. The act is done intentionally and without just cause, excuse, or justification.

With these three definitions, malice can either overlap with intention or willfulness. In many ways the above definitions were made redundant with the full descriptions of first and second-degree murder. For example, one of the elements of first-degree murder states that the defendant must be guilty of killing another living human being with:

malice and with a specific intent to kill formed after premeditation and deliberation. . .

Essentially, the requirement of specific intent to kill formed by premeditation should already satisfy the third definition of malice. Despite some redundancy, malice is an important concept to understand in homicide trials, and can be the difference between a person facing murder or manslaughter charges.


The word negligence pops up a lot in North Carolina law, though negligence on its own is actually rather uncommon in criminal law. Standard negligence generally means a failure to use due or expected level of care, or a failure to meet certain expected or required standards. Example crimes that only requires standard negligence, all of which are misdemeanors, include:

Most often when a crime requires negligence, it will refer to a more serious form of negligence, called “criminal negligence”.

Criminal Negligence

Criminal negligence, also sometimes called culpable negligence, means recklessness or carelessness that shows disregard or consequences or indifference to the rights and safety of others. This show of recklessness does not need to meet the level required to show malice for murder cases, but it should be more severe than the conduct required in civil liability cases.

Some examples where evidence sufficiently established that the defendant was guilty of culpable negligence include:

  • Causing a gun to go off and fatally shoot another person while mishandling it, such as attempting to unload it recklessly or pointing a firearm in the general direction of other people while handling it.
  • Driving while impaired.
  • Failing to call emergency medical services for a victim who became ill from a drug the defendant provided to them, after some effort to help the victim.
  • Leaving an aggressive dog unrestrained and unattended, resulting in it attacking and injuring or killing a passerby.

Strict Liability Crimes

As mentioned above, some crimes do not require any state of mind to be shown, which makes them “strict liability” crimes. Essentially, to be convicted of such a crime, the prosecution only needs to prove that the defendant committed the criminal act. This means that many defenses are not valid against a strict liability charge.

A notable type of strict liability crime in North Carolina is statutory rape or statutory sex offenses. A person can be guilty of any of these crimes if they are proven to have engaged in the alleged sexual act with a minor under the required age, given the defendant was above the required age to be culpable. The defendant cannot, for example, defend themselves by claiming they did not know the victim’s age. They also cannot defend themselves by asserting that the victim gave them consent, as children are considered to be unable to consent to sexual activity by law and it does not matter if the defendant understood this fact.

There are a few key caveats to strict liability when it comes to how a person is involved in a crime. If a person is prosecuted for aiding and abetting a strict liability crime, a state of mind is required. For example, if a person is accused of helping another commit statutory rape, the prosecution must show they knew they were helping someone sexually assault an underage person. Attempted strict liability crimes also require a state of mind, though the requirements may be less precise than those for aiding and abetting. Continuing with our example, if a person attempts but fails to commit statutory rape, it must be shown that they intended to commit a sexual act with the victim, but it does not require that they must have known the victim’s age.

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