Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The ACLU Comes Out Against Another Civil Right, Mens Rea

It's been a long while since I wrote any checks to the ACLU, and even then, I only gave to the nonprofit ACLU Foundation, which is the arm that files lawsuits. It might surprise some to learn that the ACLU proper is a 501(c)4 and engages in much politicking I despise, which informs their at first strange but entirely comprehensible rejection of the return of mens rea to criminal law. As explained in Gideon Yaffe's New York Times editorial,
As a legal principle, mens rea means that causing harm should not be enough to constitute a crime; knowingly causing harm should be. Walking away from the baggage carousel with a suitcase you mistook for your own isn’t theft; it’s theft only if you knew you didn’t own it. Ordinary citizens may assume that this common-sense requirement is already the law of the land. And indeed law students are taught that prosecutors must prove not just that a defendant did something bad, but also that his frame of mind made him culpable when he did it.

But over the years, exceptions to the principle have become common because mens rea requirements have not been consistently detailed in laws. In one often-cited case, the president of a company that mistakenly shipped mislabeled drugs was convicted of a crime even though he had no way of knowing that the labels were incorrect. In another, a truck driver crossing the Canadian border into Washington to deliver cases of beer was convicted of drug trafficking even though prosecutors produced no evidence that he knew or should have known that the truck had a secret compartment filled with drugs. In these cases and many more like them, the prosecution secured conviction without showing that the defendant had a guilty mind.
ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero objected that
These plans, if implemented, would require prosecutors to prove that a defendant was aware of the illegal nature of his or her actions and intended to cause them. Proving such intent would be nearly impossible for many financial, environmental and regulatory crimes but relatively simple for drug and property crimes
In other words, because such a law could defend rich white guys, because we want to convict people we know are guilty despite their own knowledge of the facts on the ground (and mental state, therefore), we would rather throw out the whole legislation. It's hard to express just how corrupt and political the ACLU has become, but there it is.

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