WASHINGTON - Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) yesterday introduced the Mens Rea Reform Act of 2021, a bill that aims to reduce overcriminalization, rein in excessive regulation, and curb overzealous prosecutions.
As the power of the federal government has grown in size and scope, regulators and prosecutors have found ways to penalize activities that most Americans would view as innocent or non-criminal. As a result, ordinary Americans have found themselves facing jail time for supposedly “criminal” activities like abandoning a snowmobile on federal land, accidentally diverting sewage backups to the wrong drain, or unknowingly selling goods to the wrong person. In each of these cases, the government did not have to prove that the person knew or intended to commit a crime; they simply had to prove that the person committed the action.
Current federal law criminalizes all kinds of activities that most people would not know were criminal. For example, “[p]lacing a vehicle or other object in such a manner that it is an impediment . . . to the . . . convenience of any person” on federal property or writing a check for less than $1 could earn someone six months in prison. These crimes do not require the government to demonstrate that someone intended to do something wrong—merely that they engaged in the prohibited conduct.
Additionally, many of these so-called “criminal” statutes were written by unelected bureaucrats. Agency regulators and prosecutors have used laws like the Clean Water Act for decades to punish conduct most Americans would view as innocent, or at least not criminal.
“Prosecutors should have to show a suspect had a guilty mind, not just that they committed an illegal act, before an American citizen is put behind bars,” Sen. Lee said. “Unfortunately, our federal laws contain far too many provisions that do not require prosecutors to prove a defendant intended to commit a crime. The result is a criminal justice system that over-penalizes innocent acts, which only undermines the rule of law.”
“We’ve unfortunately seen too many instances of commonsense and restraint not being used in the prosecution of Americans for innocent acts with no criminal intent,” said Sen. Tillis. “Our legislation will help curb unfair overcriminalization by requiring prosecutors to demonstrate guilty intent.”
The Mens Rea Reform Act would end this wrongful government overreach by establishing a default intent standard for all criminal laws and regulations. In other words, if a law does not require proof that the defendant intended to commit a crime, prosecutors would still have to demonstrate that the defendant possessed a guilty mind in order to convict.
Read the full bill text here.