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When is Strict Liability applied in US Criminal Law?

Strict Liability is usually not something you hear of when referring to criminal law matters. However, that is because most people are more familiar with strict liability as it pertains to lawsuits filed in regards to defective products. Strict liability in criminal law actually adheres to the same doctrine—a person is responsible for any damages or harm their actions may have caused regardless of any intention to do harm or cause damage.

To understand strict liability as it pertains to criminal law, we must first recognize that “intent” is the degree by which the law measures culpability in most criminal acts.

Intention to commit a criminal act

Every criminal act involves some level of mens rea (the mental state of the person committing the act). Justice Holmes’s statement, “Even a dog distinguishes between being stumbled over and being kicked,” applies a very easy form of reference when thinking about mens rea. The intent of the offender is the most important element in criminal law. Did the offender intend to kick the dog, or did he just happen to trip right where the dog lay? The answer can only be determined if we know or believe to know the thought process of the individual—and therein often lies the difficulty in establishing guilt.

However, strict liability in criminal law nullifies having to know intent, and makes certain acts criminal regardless of whether there was intent on the part of the offender. Such laws where strict liability exists are as simple as a parking ticket. The prosecutor does not need to prove that he intended to park in the wrong place, it only matters that he did. Another law whereby strict liability is adopted is selling liquor to an underage person (minor). Whether she intended to sell liquor to an underage person or knew the person was a minor does not matter. Only that she, in fact, did sell liquor to a person not of legal age. Therefore, it is not an adequate defense for someone to say, “I didn’t know”—whether one knows or did not is irrelevant. In more serious criminal offenses such as statutory rape — strict liability is the norm. The perpetrator’s intent does not come into question— only that the child was of a certain age and because the offender not had knowledge of the child’s age is not justification for committing such an offense.

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