Three Ways Congressional Mens Rea Proposals Could Allow White Collar Criminals to Escape Prosecution
Center for American Progress
Mar 11, 2016

On November 18, 2015, the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee voted to advance H.R. 4002, the Criminal Code Improvement Act of 2015, as part of its criminal justice reform package. Days later, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) introduced companion bill S. 2298, the Mens Rea Reform Act. Mens rea—Latin for “guilty mind”—is a legal standard used to identify the state of mind that would make a defendant culpable of a crime. In effect, both bills would significantly increase the burden of proof for prosecutors seeking to enforce criminal provisions of food safety, banking, and environmental laws, among others, designed to thwart corporate crime. A recent DoJ witness even warned that it could “cause extreme and very harmful disruptions to essential federal criminal law enforcement operations.”  Our analysis shows that this new legal standard could make it easier for corporate criminals to go unpunished by:

  1. Allowing white-collar criminals to claim ignorance of the law—and win
  2. Weakening enforcement of critical environmental, health, and safety statutes
  3. Creating years of costly litigation and legal uncertainty

Language with such potentially significant consequences for human health, the environment, and public safety has no place in a meaningful criminal justice reform effort.

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