When Intent Doesn’t Matter: Strict Liability Crimes and Torts

Intent doesn’t have to be proven when it comes to strict liability crimes. Read on to learn more about strict liability and possible defenses if you’re accused.

Even if you have never been arrested or charged with a criminal offense, you probably know a bit about how it works. Typically, in order to be guilty of a crime, you must have committed an illegal act (called the actus reus) with the intent to commit that particular crime (the mens rea).

The mens rea requirement ensures that people do not get prosecuted for genuine accidents. For example, if you are driving with a passenger in your car, your brakes fail and the passenger dies, you cannot be prosecuted for first degree murder. The mens rea for that crime requires premeditation, malice and intention, none of which were present in this scenario.

Not all crimes need such an exacting mens rea. For some, the act itself is enough for you to be convicted. Statutory rape, selling alcohol to minors and driving while intoxicated are strict liability crimes. In other words, strict liability crimes are ones for which you don’t need to have intent to commit.

Strict liability is also a doctrine in tort law.

A tort is a civil wrong, or injury for which a person can sue in the courts. Tort cases (like negligence or car accident lawsuits) are different from criminal cases because they do not have to involve an illegal act, and they do not result in anybody going to jail.

In that context, a person or company is strictly liable for defective products that injure people, regardless of whether the injured victims were negligent themselves. Strict liability can also apply to less common situations, like the keeping of wild animals.

This article will examine the nature of strict liability offenses and what they mean in the modern courtroom. It will also look at some more common examples of criminal and civil strict liability crimes in the United States.

Why Does Strict Liability Exist?

Speed limit sign

Criminal law — and to a lesser extent civil tort law — has a strong moral component. The law seeks to punish genuine wrongdoing.

To ensure that morally innocent people are not punished, prosecutors have to prove all aspects of a criminal case beyond a reasonable doubt. This is the highest standard of proof. In numerical terms, it means  the jury must be 95-99% certain that the accused is guilty.

One of the reasons a prosecutor’s job is so difficult is that they must therefore prove the mens rea — an invisible mental process — beyond a reasonable doubt. That can be tricky because it’s generally more difficult to prove to a jury what was going on in someone’s head. In some cases, it might be impossible.

By removing the need to prove a person’s intent, or mens rea, strict criminal liability helps address serious, obvious societal harm. This guards against otherwise bad actors escaping criminal punishment. In other words, it shouldn’t matter that you didn’t think you were too drunk to drive. You did drive, and you were drunk.

Strict liability laws were enacted to protect against certain kinds of acts and injuries for which there is normally no reasonable excuse. For this reason, driving while intoxicated does not have a mens rea requirement. The fact that you chose to get behind the wheel of a car is all the intent anyone needs to know.

Another common example is the crime of statutory rape. Statutory rape is usually defined as sexual intercourse with someone who is legally too young to consent. It’s near impossible to conceive of any mental state that would justify it. Accordingly, the prosecutor does not need to offer proof of mens rea at trial.

Some states have strict liability dog bite laws. You are automatically liable for injuries caused by your dog, even if you had no reason to believe your pet would act aggressively.

A less dramatic but more common example is driving over the speed limit or committing other minor traffic offenses. Though we may try to justify our actions to the police or a judge, breaking the law results in a speeding ticket or other fine.

Defenses To Strict Liability Crimes

Policeman sitting inside a courtroom

Strict liability crimes are different from others, but that doesn’t mean that a defense can’t be mounted against them.

1. Factual Defenses

Because strict liability crime trials are so focused on the facts of what happened, not the intent, defenses in these cases are limited. A good factual defense — the idea that the prosecutor is just wrong about what happened — is usually the best option.

For example, in a DUI trial, the driver may not have been over the legal limit for intoxication. If the prosecutor can’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused was beyond that threshold, the court will have to acquit.

2. Legal Defenses

Distinct from factual defenses are legal defenses. Most crimes have statutes of limitation. (There are some notable exceptions, like murder.) This means that a prosecutor only has so much time to bring charges against a defendant for certain acts.

In a criminal case, the defendant is the person accused of a crime. In a civil tort case, the defendant is the person being sued — the one who is accused of causing the damage to the injured person.

If the prosecutor waits too long, they cannot convict a person based on those acts. While intent may be irrelevant in strict liability cases, the statutory limitation period never is.

There may be other legal challenges that can be brought in response to criminal charges. A good example is lack of jurisdiction. If an alleged crime did not happen in the state where the accused is being charged, the case may not be able to proceed.

3. Good Faith: A Potential Defense

Even people who think that strict liability crimes are necessary may disagree that they should be applied in all cases. Some scholars and court systems have argued that people who act in good faith should not be punished for strict liability crimes. In this context, a “good faith defense” means that someone sincerely and justifiably believed that their actions were lawful.

British, Canadian and Australian courts have all recognized that a person may simply be mistaken through no fault of their own and that the imposition of strict liability is unfair in that case. At least one California law professor has also argued for the adoption of a good faith defense against strict liability crimes.

American courts have generally been much harsher in their treatment of strict liability laws than courts in other English-speaking countries. Nonetheless, the arguments put forth by these other countries may serve as a helpful resource in constructing a good faith argument to change the defenses to strict liability laws in the United States.

Strict Liability in Civil Tort Law

White tiger inside a cage

In the context of personal injury law, strict liability is a very different doctrine. The most common place to see it is in litigation about defective products that injure a consumer, though there are some other notable examples.

1. Strict Product Liability

In civil strict product liability cases, there are two main kinds of product defects. The first is a manufacturing defect, caused by a problem that arose in the making of the product. The second, a design defect, arises because something about the design or concept of the product itself is unsafe.

As with the criminal cases, these tort cases focus on the facts. For a manufacturing defect, what went wrong with the making of this particular product that made it unsafe? For a design defect, was there a reasonably safe alternative that could have been used but wasn’t? Assuming these facts are proven, an injured person may be able to recover damages regardless of the producer’s intent.

2. Keeping Wild Animals

People who keep wild animals as pets are strictly liable for injuries caused by those animals. (In this context, “wild animals” refers to exotic pets like tigers or chimpanzees, not rambunctious domestic pets like dogs or cats.) Even if the owner took all reasonable precautions and was not negligent, they are still responsible for all harm caused by their exotic animals.

3. Abnormally Dangerous Activities

People who engage in abnormally dangerous activities, like the use of explosives, have strict liability for injuries caused by that activity. It bears repeating that even if the activity was undertaken with proper care and not negligent at all, the very nature of that activity itself will impose liability.

4. Civil Defenses

Generally speaking, civil defendants have more defenses available to them than criminal ones. Someone who is sued for personal injury on a strict liability basis can argue assumption of risk, comparative fault, statutes of limitation or other legal arguments.

Don’t Cross That Line

Strict liability laws are designed to enforce some of society’s clearest rules and expectations, as well as to defend the most vulnerable among us. They can have harsh results, but they are also easy to remember. Don’t drive drunk. Don’t sell alcohol to minors. Don’t keep wild animals or use explosives unless you know what you’re doing.

On the other hand, if you are injured by someone else’s behavior or products, you should look at whether other types of civil liability may apply.

These laws can make it easier to bring your case and get compensation. If you or a loved one has been injured, contact a qualified personal injury lawyer in your state for a free consultation and case evaluation.

Matthew Carter, Esq. has been a licensed attorney since 2004. He’s admitted to practice law in California and Nevada, where he was awarded the Martindale.com rating of AV – Preeminent. Matthew has successfully handled a variety of personal injury and wrongful death cases, as well as trials, appeals, and evidentiary hearings throughout state and federal... Read More >>