Here’s how these two Midwestern states were able to enact “mens rea” reforms that make more laws subject to a “criminal intent” standard.
The Criminal Justice Committee was always an odd fit for Rep. Ed McBroom, a state lawmaker and dairy farmer representing a rural area of Michigan.
During his last term on the committee, McBroom, a Republican, was schooled on a criminal justice topic he had never heard of before, but on this one, few could blame him.
Rep. Rose Mary Robinson, a Democratic lawmaker and defense attorney from Detroit, would frequently want to know what the “mens rea” standards were for the state’s thousands of criminal laws and regulations.
“One day I said, ‘Rep. Robinson, I am not an attorney. I am a farmer. What on earth is mens rea?’” McBroom recalled.
Last month, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law a bill written by McBroom, and supported by Robinson, that requires prosecutors—unless a law explicitly states otherwise—to prove that a defendant intended to commit a crime.
The willful intent standard, known as mens rea—which is Latin for “guilty mind,” as McBroom can now tell you—has suddenly become of central concern on Capitol Hill, as division over the issue threatens Congress’ efforts to pass a broader criminal justice reform bill.
At the federal level, opponents of requiring more laws to have a willful requirement standard argue that it would make it more difficult to prosecute corporations that commit fraud, taint food, or pollute the environment, because these violators could allege they didn’t intend to break the law.
Others fret over why Congress would risk ruining bipartisan momentum toward reducing harsh prison sentences from the nation’s war on drugs by injecting a seemingly unrelated, harder to understand issue—mens rea—into the same debate.
As federal legislators try to work out their differences, Michigan recently became the second Midwestern state, after Ohio in late 2014, to implement laws reforming how the mens rea standard is applied.
Proponents of mens rea, who call such requirements a necessary guard against overcriminalization by protecting people from accidentally breaking the law, say the states’ efforts prove that there’s a bipartisan way forward on the issue.
‘Common Sense’ in Michigan
“It was pretty commonsense around here,” McBroom told The Daily Signal of the effort he led to reform mens rea in Michigan, which he began at the end of 2014 and saw through until the legislation passed last month.
“After learning about it, I quickly realized that this word, this mens rea, is exactly describing the problem so many of us have been after. People can’t follow or keep up with all these regulatory burdens.”
McBroom, who was tending the cows on his farm in Dickinson County as he remembered this, added: “I happened to be at the right place at the right time.”
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