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Bill would lower mens rea requirement in public corruption cases

Public corruption, considered a white collar crime, is in some senses every bit as concerning for the public as are crimes involving violence and drugs. When public officials betray the public trust, they face an onslaught of criticism and condemnation from the public, not to mention the scrutiny of the court system. For prosecutors, the pressure to convict accused public officials may be significant, though it depends on the political dynamics at play and the specific nature of the allegations.

A bill currently under consideration by Florida lawmakers would redefine corruption so that it would be easier for the state to prosecute allegedly corrupt public officials. Specifically, the bill lowers the mens rea requirement. Mens rea, for those not familiar with the term, refers to the requisite mental state identified in criminal statutes. The mens rea requirement in some criminal offenses is stricter than in others, and can often be a bar for prosecutors to successfully pursuing a case. 

Currently, Florida law requires that prosecutors present evidence showing beyond a reasonable doubt that those charged with public corruption intended to act corruptly. The bill would change the requirement to “knowingly and intentionally,” a lower standard. In the language of criminal law, knowingly is considered to be a lower standard than intentionally, the difference being that knowingly is less direct than intentionally. Knowingly is implied in situations where an offense is committed, but where there is not the clear, specific intent to commit the offense.

As it stands, the biggest concern about the bill seems to be not that it lowers the mens rea requirement in public corruption cases, but that it would apply to contractors or vendors of the state, which could arguably lead to the prosecution of ordinary business practices.

In our next post, we’ll look at the issue of intent in federal fraud cases.

Sources:

First Coast News, “Anti-corruption bill faces tough path in Legislature,” William March, Jan. 18, 2016.

University of Dayton, “MPC Section 2.02 General Requirements of Culpability,” Accessed Jan. 19, 2016.

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