Is there “strict liability” in criminal law?

“Strict liability” is a concept mainly applicable to civil, rather than criminal, law. It’s a way of holding someone accountable for behavior regardless of fault. It often arises with lawsuits against product manufacturers—in applicable cases, the plaintiff doesn’t need to show that the manufacturer was negligent in creating the product. All the plaintiff must show is that the manufacturer is responsible for a defective product and that the defect injured the plaintiff. (See Defective Product Claims: Theories of Liability.)

In criminal law, strict liability laws punish people regardless of their state of mind—the prosecution doesn’t need to prove that a defendant intended to do something that's illegal. The prosecution doesn’t even need to establish that the defendant was reckless or negligent. (See What amounts to recklessness?)

Strict liability offenses are rare, in large part because it’s usually unfair to hand someone a criminal conviction if that person wasn’t worthy of moral blame. The most common example of a strict liability crime is statutory rape: In many states, it’s a crime to have sex with a minor, no matter the circumstances. It’s a crime in those places even if the defendant honestly and reasonably believed that the sexual partner was old enough to give legal consent. (See Statutory Rape for a detailed discussion and state-specific laws. Also see What are some common "strict liability" crimes?)

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