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Washington, D.C.—Today, Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Mike Lee (R-UT), Ted Cruz (R-TX), David Perdue (R-GA), and Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced legislation to strengthen criminal intent protections in federal law. Their bill, the Mens Rea Reform Act of 2017, would set a default intent standard for all criminal laws and regulations that lack such a standard. This legislation would ensure that courts and creative prosecutors do not take the absence of a criminal intent standard to mean that the government can obtain a conviction without any proof a guilty mind.

Senator Hatch will deliver a speech on the Senate floor about the need for mens rea reform at 3:30 p.m. EDT. Follow the speech live here.

“Rampant and unfair overcriminalization in America calls for criminal justice reform, which starts with default mens rea legislation,” Sen. Hatch said. “Requiring proof of criminal intent protects individuals from prison time or other criminal penalties for accidental conduct or for activities they didn’t know were wrong. In recent years, Congress and federal agencies have increasingly created crimes with vague or unclear criminal intent requirements or with no criminal intent requirement at all. The Mens Rea Reform Act will help correct that problem and ensure that honest, hardworking Americans are not swept up in the criminal justice system for doing things they didn’t know were against the law.”

“Prosecutors should have to show a suspect had a guilty mind, not just that they committed an illegal act, before an American 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 criminal justice system that over penalizes innocent acts which only undermines the rule of law."

“I’m proud to join Sen. Hatch in addressing one of the biggest flaws in our modern criminal justice system,”Sen. Cruz said. “Currently, the federal government can send men and women to prison without demonstrating criminal intent. As Congress works to address criminal justice reform, the Mens Rea Reform Act needs to be enacted to protect the rights of all Americans.”

"Our criminal justice system is supposed to be built on the foundation of ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ yet the massive growth of Big Government subjects Americans to possible jail time for crimes they could have had no reasonable idea they were committing. This bill would implement much-needed change,” said Sen. Paul.

Statements of Support

John Malcolm, Vice President for the Institute for Constitutional Government and Director of the Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, Heritage Foundation:

Senator Hatch deserves a lot credit for keeping the issue of mens rea reform on the front burner.  Mens rea reform is a matter of fundamental fairness.  By having adequate mens rea standards, we ensure that moral blameworthiness is front and center in our criminal justice system.  The intent of the actor should make a difference in whether he is criminally prosecuted or is dealt with through the civil or administrative justice systems.  We should not be so cavalier about labeling someone a criminal, with all of the collateral consequences that flow from that, when someone does something unwittingly that causes harm.  Restoring moral blameworthiness to greater prominence in our criminal laws will revitalize our criminal justice system and preserve its moral authority, which, in turn, will engender respect for the rule of law. 

Norman L. Reimer, Executive Director, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL):

NACDL lauds this important solution among several solutions that it actively supports to help address the fundamental imbalances and the destructive consequences of this country’s criminal justice system. Its members urge Congress to support Senator Hatch’s continued commitment to this fundamental principle of fairness.

David Patton, Executive Director and Attorney-in-Chief, Federal Defenders of New York, Inc.:

As Federal Defenders, we are acutely aware of the need for mens rea reform. Over 80 percent of people charged with federal crimes are too poor to afford a lawyer, and nearly 80 percent of people charged with federal crimes are Black, Hispanic, or Native American. These are our clients, and too many of them are subject to laws that are neither fair nor consistent with traditional principles of criminal liability. This bill would help to remedy some of those failings. 

Efforts to reform mens rea intent requirements for federal criminal statutes are supported by the US Chamber of Commerce, Heritage Foundation, Koch Industries, and many others.