In a nutshell, an offense must be comprised of some voluntary action and a guilty mind. Ohio criminal law is contained in the Ohio Revised Code (ORC). Under the ORC, you need two things to be charged with a crime in Ohio. First, you need an actus reus—a guilty act. What this means is that you’ve got to do something to be charged with a crime. Just thinking about how you’d like to kick your annoying neighbor in the face isn’t enough. You’ve got to actually kick him to get charged with a crime. In particular, what you do needs to be “voluntary” and cannot be a convulsion. If you have a seizure and hit someone in the face in the process because of your seizure, that’s not voluntary and you can’t be charged with a crime.
Second, under ORC § 2901.22, you need a certain mens rea—a guilty mind. This can get a little confusing, but mens rea helps separate the really bad crimes from the not-so-bad crimes. If you knew that when you swung a baseball bat, you were going to kill someone, that’s a whole lot worse than just swinging your bat without looking around to be sure no one was in reach and someone happened to walk by when you did it. There are different mental states and the more severe the mental state, the more severe the crime and penalty is. Let’s walk through each of them.
Violent Crimes and State of Mind
“Purposely” is the worst mind state you can have when you commit the act of the crime. This means that you intended to engage in the conduct that constitutes the offense or intended the result that happened because of what you did. Back to our baseball bat example, if you intended to hit the guy in the head, then you would be charged with “purposely” committing whatever crime hitting him in the head violated. Or if you intended to kill him and he died, you “purposely” caused his death.
Next is “knowingly,” which means that even though you didn’t intend the result, you knew full well it was going to happen because of what you did. Let’s say I shoot a gun at somebody. I don’t intend to kill him, but I know well enough that he’s going to die if I shoot at him.
Third is “recklessly.” Basically, recklessness requires you to do something knowing that there is a risk or a chance that something bad will happen and proceed to do it anyway. Think of it like a “don’t give a damn” attitude. If you drive your car through a playground and you “don’t give a damn” if you hit a kid, then you’re being reckless.
Finally, there is “negligently.” Now, in the law, there’s a lot of talk about this mythical “reasonable person.” To be negligent, you have to do something that a reasonable person wouldn’t do because a reasonable person would know about the risk of a result occurring. This has to be a pretty big oversight on your part to be negligent because, frankly, the law doesn’t protect stupid people. So, basically, you should have known the risk of your behavior because a reasonable person would have known.
Negligence and Mens Rea
Here’s an example of negligence. Let’s get in the car and go for a drive. You’re texting at the wheel. You plow through a stop sign and hit someone crossing the street. You honestly didn’t know that there was a chance you would hit someone but imagine that a reasonable person was sitting in the seat next to you in the car the whole time. When they tell their side of the story, they say that they wouldn’t have texted it when driving because they knew that there was a risk that you could hit someone crossing the street.
You might think that this is just splitting hairs, but I’ll show you why it’s important with a real example from Ohio. In 1951, Mr. Farmer was charged with robbery and with the murder of the victim during the robbery. From the facts of the case, Mr. Farmer struck the victim twice with a stick (of unknown size and dimensions). He was convicted by a jury, but the Supreme Court of Ohio reversed because there was no evidence that he intended to kill someone. Of course the defendant is rarely going to come right out and say he intended to kill a victim, but his intent can be presumed depending upon how he carried out the killing. In Mr. Farmer’s case his intent could have been presumed if he had used a large heavy lead pipe in the dining room. However, in his particular case, the stick used as the weapon was of unknown size and dimension. Therefore, there was reasonable doubt as to whether the use of the stick as a weapon was likely to produce death or serious bodily injury. Without evidence of Mr. Farmer’s specific intent to kill the victim and without evidence, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the weapon used was likely to produce death or serious injury, the mens rea element could not be satisfied. So, Mr. Farmer’s conviction was reversed because it could not be proved that he intended to kill the victim.
Quick guide to Mens Rea—
- Purposely: I intended the conduct or the result.
- Knowingly: I knew that the result would occur.
- Recklessly: I didn’t give a damn about the result.
- Negligently: I should have known the risk because a reasonable person would have known it.
If the statute doesn’t have any kind of intent required for the offense, it’s “strict liability.” That means that if you just do whatever is prohibited, then you’re liable. For example, speeding is strict liability. If you speed, you get a ticket even if you didn’t mean to speed.
Also, here’s a final point of discussion: the plea deal. Known as “plea bargaining,” sometimes this is the only lifeline that a criminal defendant has to get himself out of legal trouble. Basically, your attorney and the prosecutor discuss the charges and see if the prosecution will agree to a lesser sentence or a reduced charge (i.e., a lesser crime) when you’ve actually committed the crime. In fact, it’s preferred in most courts because it easily disposes of cases, saves prosecutors and the states valuable time and resources, and gives the defendant the benefit of a lighter sentence. Sometimes, it might be your only way to avoid prison.
Are you or someone you know facing criminal charges?
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