April 2007, Volume 93, Issue 2|
Mens Rea and the Cost of Ignorance
93 Va. L. Rev. 415 (2007)
This Essay advances a new understanding of the controversial doctrine of strict criminal liability. While the conventional view holds that strict criminal liability aims at alleviating the administrative burden of proving defendantsí mental state, this Essay argues that this doctrine also can induce genuinely ignorant offenders to acquire information. The predominant mens rea standard assures ignorant offenders that they can engage in the prohibited conduct without being penalized. This drawback, however, is mitigated when offenders find that the market imposes too high a cost on ignorance. If ignorance is sufficiently costly, offenders will take steps to become (or remain) informed notwithstanding the adverse incentive created by the mens rea standard. The Essay thus predicts that, other things being equal, strict liability is likely to be especially useful in those elements of a criminal offense for which ignorance is virtually costless. The Essay demonstrates the illuminating power of this explanation by analyzing the application of strict liability to liquor sale to minors, statutory rape, child pornography, regulatory offenses, criminal liability of corporate officers, and mistakes of law and fact. The Essay concludes by exploring whether alternative doctrines may induce offenders to acquire information without producing the harsh and unfair consequences often attributed to strict liability.
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