For many federal offenses, a conviction is only possible if the prosecution can establish that you have the necessary criminal intent. These forms of intent vary, but often involve a showing that you acted intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly. These offenses require an element of intent in order to separate accidental behavior from actions that could have been prevented.
One of the strongest tactics available to a defense attorney is to focus on their client's lack of criminal intent – an element of a crime formally known as mens rea. Even if the government can establish every other element of the crime, the lack of the necessary intent should result in an acquittal.
Under federal law, there are some defenses that directly target specific intent elements of a crime. Below, we cover these defenses and how they could apply to your case. Each case is unique, so for a better understanding of the defenses available in your case, speak with veteran board-certified criminal defense attorney Doug Murphy right away.
Automatism involves an action or conduct that occurs with any reasoned intention. These are actions that are carried out by a person in a state of unconsciousness or lacking awareness of their surroundings. The most common example of automatism is sleepwalking. Because a person sleepwalking is not in control of the physical movements of their body, they could commit an act without having the necessary criminal intent to do so. Establishing that automatism was to blame could serve as a viable defense to a crime of intent.
Because this is not an affirmative defense, the burden is on the government to prove mens rea beyond a reasonable doubt. However, the defendant must establish sufficient evidence that they were unconscious or mentally disassociated during the alleged offense to create reasonable doubt.
Negating Mens Rea
In some cases, it is possible to negate the mens rea element of a specific intent crime by alleging the defendant suffered from a mental disease or defect. If they can show this disease or defect made it impossible to form the necessary intent for the offense, it could provide reasonable doubt needed for an acquittal. Federal courts have allowed expert testimony that a defendant's personality type would be unable to form the criminal intent necessary for a conviction. This defense can also relate to drug use as a factor in a person's inability to form the required mens rea.
Like with automatism, the defendant must produce evidence negating mens rea to establish reasonable doubt. Ultimately, the burden of proving intent remains with the government.
Good faith is less of a specific defense, and more the concept of acting with an honest belief that they are following the law to the letter. Claims of good faith are most common in cases involving violations of tax law and other financial crimes.
The defense generally boils down to whether or not there was an intent to deceive the government. If you can establish that you acted in the belief that you were in full compliance with the law, some federal statutes will treat your good faith as a complete defense to certain fraud claims. In other words, if you were acting in good faith you could not have had the mens rea for intentionally defrauding another person or entity.
While this is a viable defense, a defendant does not hold the burden of proving their good faith. The burden of establishing mens rea remains with the prosecution, but evidence of good faith could provide reasonable doubt.
Advice of Counsel
Many people involved in complex business dealings or large monetary transactions seek the advice of legal counsel before moving forward with a deal. After all, the regulations in some industries are so complex it is impossible for a layperson to fully understand. Unfortunately, attorneys can also make mistakes when giving legal advice. If a defendant violated federal law after relying on the advice of counsel that their actions were legal, they could have a defense from prosecution.
This defense is not available simply because a lawyer gave bad advice. A defendant may only make use of it if they actively sought the advice of legal counsel in good faith, provided their attorney with all relevant facts, and then acted on that advice.
The advice of counsel defense is only available when the advice creates a genuine misunderstanding of a defendant's legal duties. If the defendant was aware of what they were doing was illegal, bad advice from their lawyer will not serve a shield from criminal liability. Likewise, this defense is not available when a defendant did not actively seek advice from their attorney, or when their legal counsel was a participant in the crime itself.
Like the other defenses discussed previously, the state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that bad advice from counsel did not negate the mens rea required for the offense.
Applying Mens Rea to Each Element
Finally, the Supreme Court has expanded the use of mens rea to other elements of the offense in some cases. In the case Flores-Figureoa v. United States, the court held a federal statute that requires the prosecution to establish the defendant acted knowingly in every element of the crime. In Flores-Figureoa, the court held that to “knowingly transfer, possess, or use, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person,” meant the state must prove the defendant knowingly transferred the means of identification of another person, and that they knew the object in question was means of identification. This is important. To date, only a small number of federal statutes allow this defense.
Discuss Your Defense Options with a Houston Federal Crimes Lawyer
Many of these defenses are situational and depend on a very specific set of facts. That said, you should never assume a defense will not apply in your case. To ensure you put forward the strongest defense possible, it is vital you discuss your options with experienced federal defense counsel. Board Certified Criminal Defense Attorney Doug Murphy has a track record of success in Houston federal courts. To discuss your case, schedule a free consultation with the Doug Murphy Law Firm, P.C. right away.