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For almost all federal crimes, prosecutors must prove that the defendant had mens rea, or a guilty mind. In the 1952 case, Morissette v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court highlighted the historical footing for this principle. “The contention that an injury can amount to a crime only when inflicted by intention is no provincial or transient notion,” the court noted. “It is as universal and persistent in mature systems of law as belief in freedom of the human will and a consequent duty of the normal individual to choose between good and evil.”

No doubt, mens rea makes it more difficult to prove certain kinds of criminal wrongdoing and to prosecute individuals for particular types of conduct. But is such difficulty a bad thing? There are many important reasons why our system of criminal justice typically requires mens rea. The mens rea requirement protects individuals from government overreach and mob justice. And, it helps ensure that only the appropriate type of conduct is prosecuted criminally.

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