Every crime has a set of elements that the prosecuting attorney must prove in order to establish the defendant’s guilt. One of these elements typically has to do with the defendant’s mental state. Usually, prosecutors must show that the defendant acted intentionally, or perhaps recklessly or negligently. But when an offense is a strict liability crime, there’s no state-of-mind element to prove.
Strict liability is more common in civil lawsuits; criminal punishment is usually reserved for those who act with a culpable mental state. But some acts produce outcomes that lawmakers want to punish regardless of state of mind.
- One example is statutory rape. In most states, having sex with a minor is a crime even if the defendant didn’t know the sexual partner was—or reasonably thought that the partner wasn’t—a minor.
- Selling alcohol to a minor is a strict liability crime in some states: A conviction is appropriate even if the seller honestly thought the buyer was 21 or older and tried to confirm as much.
- Some traffic offenses may also be strict liability crimes. In many places, it doesn’t matter whether the driver knew she went over the speed limit—the plain fact that she did typically justifies a conviction. (This issue might arise where the defendant had a defective speedometer; see People v. Caddy, 189 Colo. 353 (1975).)
There may be defenses to strict liability crimes other than “I didn’t do it.” But this is a tricky area of the law, and a knowledgeable criminal defense lawyer is the best—and should be the only—person to advise someone as to defenses that might apply in a given case.