Posts Tagged ‘strict liability’

Q&A Roundup Part 2

Friday, September 18th, 2015

I’m writing a response to an essay on “consent as a felt sense” and looking for a deeper explanation of mens rea and the reason why it ought form the basis for not just a legal system, but for the social norms of a community. I know there is some good discussion in the Elonis v. US case, but who are some good sources to read that really lay out the reason why we should (or should not) examine an actors mindset when judging culpability?

Mens rea isn’t really the basis of our legal system, nor is it really the basis of social norms. Mens rea is the legal term for the mental state that makes an act punishable by the state. If I accidentally tripped on a crack in the sidewalk and fell on you, bruising your arm, yes I caused injury to you, but because I had no culpable mental state – no mens rea – that’s not an injury the law wants to punish me for. Whereas if I intentionally whacked you on the arm and bruised it, the state could send me to jail. Same act, same harm, but only punishable because I was trying to harm you.

That’s a very small subset of the law. Mens rea doesn’t come up much in, say, corporate law or contracts or wills or real estate, etc. There may be some question of what parties intended or meant to do, but that’s not the same analysis as whether (or to what degree) they were being evil.

Mens rea doesn’t underlie social norms, either, but is instead a way of looking at why they were broken. It’s the difference between merely being rude or awkward and criminal stalking or harassment. It’s the difference between an accidental killing and murder one. The social norm would be what is or is not done, whereas mens rea is how purposefully you violated it.

Rather than mens rea forming a basis for “just a legal system,” it is instead a basis of “a just legal system,” ensuring that we only punish those who deserve it, who chose to break the rules. Injustice often arises when we punish without caring about mens rea. (See my chapter on strict liability, “Guilt without Fault,” for example.)

As for “consent as a felt sense,” be careful discussing it in the same breath as the law. That phrase is an attempt to redefine “consent” to mean something else. The law is very clear about what consent means.

“Consent” means voluntarily agreeing (or acquiescing) to something, so that it can now happen. If you ask me if you can borrow my bicycle, and I say yes, then I consented to you borrowing my bicycle. Even if while riding my bike you hit a pedestrian, and oh my god if I’d known you were going to do that I’d never have said yes, it doesn’t change the fact that I let you do it. The future doesn’t change the fact that I gave consent now. By the same token, if you steal my bicycle and later ask me if it was okay, even if I say yes I still did not consent to you taking it in the first place. You still committed theft. The fact that I’m okay with it now doesn’t change the past. That’s ratification or something like that, not consent.

“Consent as a felt sense” is really the opposite. It’s a way of saying consent works backwards in time, rather than forwards. It lets me “take back” my consent to you riding my bike, after I find out you later hit a pedestrian. If it was internally consistent, it would let my later acquiescence convert your crime of theft into a non-criminal borrowing, after the fact. The law doesn’t work like that.

It usually comes up in the context of rape – specifically wanting to call consensual sex nonconsensual rape, if afterwards one of the participants feels like he/she wouldn’t have agreed to it if they knew how they’d feel about it now. In other words, “taking back” one’s consent because they regret what they consented to. The law doesn’t work that way, but those who speak of “consent as a felt sense” tend to say “so what,” and say we shouldn’t be so concerned with whether the rules were obeyed at the time as with how people felt afterwards.

The problem in that world – and it’s a big one – is that mens rea is irrelevant. Who cares whether you were trying to do anything wrong or whether you were trying to do the right thing. The important thing isn’t your culpability then, but my feelings now. In that world, you could be punished even though you did everything right, and did nothing wrong. It embodies all the injustice of strict liability crimes, with all the unpredictability of a world without rule of law, where nobody knows what they might go to jail for or why. Can you imagine what kind of a hell that would be?

This is why lawyers – especially criminal lawyers – are super leery of this kind of sociological definition-changing. Utopians tend to make misery. Especially when they don’t understand the law and why it is the way it is.

Another reader’s response: I’m clearly not as experienced as lawyer as this guy (two thirds of a 1L criminal law class woo!), but I thought I’d share my two cents.

I think the above lawyer’s analysis fails in regarding consent as something that is given once, rather than a continuous process.  It is not precisely analogous to the bike-giving example because that’s a bailment created for a limited duration of time; meanwhile, in order for an act to be truly consensual there must be consent at each individual action that occurs, and at each moment.  To clear up some possible strawmen, I’m pretty sure that the above lawyer thinks that people can verbally revoke consent in the middle of a sex act.  Conversely, I don’t mean that explicit verbal consent must be gotten every time e.g. someone goes from touching one body part to another.

I think the “consent as a felt sense” can be better understood to modify the actus reus of rape, rather than the mens rea.  Rape is then redefined as “any sexual act done without the subjective experience of consent with another person.”  I think this is the proper definition, since it focuses the crime on where the harm actually occurs; e.g. inside the mind of the person being victimized.  Of course, in order to be morally culpable, much less criminally answerable, there must also be a mens rea; was someone intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or negligently violating someone’s subjective experience of consent?  Or did they have no way of knowing?  Obviously if someone has no clue that consent was no longer experienced, and had no way of knowing it, they’re not culpable.

So far this looks pretty similar to today’s rape law, but I’d like to bring in an example from my own life to illustrate.  When I was 17, I engaged in my first relationship with a 39-year old man.  Things proceeded pretty quickly, and we started having sex.  When we finally got there, I was clearly distressed; I was shaking, not just trembling, and drenched in sweat that went beyond normal sexual aerobics.  My voice caught in my throat.  I think it’s far to characterize that situation as one where the subjective experience of consent was no longer there, but I also did not have the means to verbalize that to my partner.  My partner, to his credit, stopped what he was doing, we had a discussion, and two weeks and a couple drinks later I had the best experience of my life.

But was it simply to my partner’s credit?  I think what the people who define consent as a felt experience would say that it’s not.  It’s the bare minimum of morally acceptable behavior.  Even if I had given verbal consent prior, anyone who would continue having sex with someone who is clearly in distress merely because they met the empty formalism of rape law is morally culpable.

Spreading the idea of consent as a felt experience, or encoding it into law, is about crystallizing that insight.  Torts law is often about placing the burden of preventing harm on those who are in the best position to be able to do so (to be fair, I got this from my heavily law-and-economics torts professor, so I have no idea if this is the mainstream view).  Surely that’s the person who lost felt consent, since they can verbalize it, but the initiator is also in a position to minimize harm by stopping if they think felt consent has been lost.  It makes sense to incentivize people to stop if they have reason to believe consent is no longer present.

Rape law, and current mores around rape, would say that what my boyfriend did was not obligatory.  I think it is, which is why I want to spread the idea of consent as a felt experience.

You raise a couple of really intriguing points.

The first is the concept of consent as a continuous process. There are at least two excellent classroom discussions to get out of that. First would be whether it’s actually a continuing process. If you have happily consented to have sex with your boyfriend, must you really consent to each tickle, touch, or thrust before it can take place, or have you actually consented to the experience as a whole, however it may unfold? I suspect that the common understanding is the latter, rather than the former – in which case, if your understanding is the former, it might behoove you to so inform your partner, lest there be any unfortunate misunderstandings that ruin your experience or his life.

Still on that first point, another excellent discussion could be whether, and at what point, such consent is revocable. Is it a hard-and-fast rule that, no matter when, the moment you withdraw consent any further continuation of the act is rape? Or is there more of a continuum? Take these three situations: (a) You say “let’s go to bed” and you partner eagerly agrees, but before anyone’s jeans are off you change your mind and say not tonight. (b) You’ve been happily having intercourse, well past the penetration stage, and while he’s going hot and heavy you remember something he did that upset you, you immediately lose interest in continuing and tell him to stop, but he doesn’t stop immediately so you push him off. © You had sex and it was great. Now it’s the next day and you feel really bad that you had sex. Maybe he turned out to be a jerk in the morning, or whatever. The point is you no longer want it to have happened. The question would be, do all three of those acts count as revocation of consent, do only (a) and (b) count, or does only (a) count, and why? The trick with these discussions, of course, is to dig down to the underlying principles behind people’s different positions, to ensure that people aren’t talking past each other despite using the same language.

The second intriguing point you raise is when you say you think it is obligatory for sex partners to do what your boyfriend did. You were exceedingly nervous at the prospect of losing your virginity, but never made it known that you didn’t want to go through with it. Your partner picked up on the fact that this wasn’t very enjoyable for you, and had the good grace to wait until you were more comfortable with it. You would make mandatory his ability to distinguish your distress from the normal apprehension and excitement that accompany many first forays into sex. You would make mandatory his ability to correctly interpret your internal feelings when you have not communicated them. You would make mandatory the gentility and wisdom of an experienced, middle-aged man, and impose them on every 17-year-old trying sex himself for the first time, possibly as distressed as you were.

And to be clear, you’re saying that anyone who gets it wrong, anyone who mis-reads the cues, anyone who isn’t as sensitive or mature as this ideal, should have his future taken away, should be branded a felon, should be imprisoned, should be registered as a sex offender and despised for the rest of his life, denied the opportunity for most education, employment, social involvement, and relegated to an underclass of citizens we like to pretend don’t exist. Because that’s what happens when you make this stuff obligatory.

Hey, maybe that’s exactly what you want. Maybe it isn’t. Don’t let me put words in your mouth. But as someone who’s defended both men wrongfully accused of sex crimes and women charged with making false accusations, I’d caution anybody urging such mandates to be very clear on the outcome they desire. Good intentions, and all that.

Let’s Make a New Law!

Thursday, October 24th, 2013

Any moderately well-informed person these days is aware of the shocking injustices that happen whenever criminal laws get written by people who don’t really understand what criminal law is, or how it works. (Brilliant summary here.) They tend to create crimes that are ill-defined, overbroad, and usually an overreaction to the perceived harm. The results can be pretty bad.

How much more cause for concern, then, when the proposed crime violates not only the fundamental principles of criminal jurisprudence, but cherished individual rights that have nothing to do with crime?

And how much more cause for concern, then, when those who catch potential problems are not engaged in thoughtful debate, but are instead shouted down and accused of malicious and reprehensible conduct?

It looks like that’s what’s been going on recently in an ongoing debate over proposed “Revenge Porn” legislation that’s floating around out there. At first the shenanigans were amusing to watch, but lately it’s turned into a distressing train wreck online. A law has been proposed in reaction to something with a lot of emotional pull, thoughtful people have voiced concerns that it may be a bad law, and its proponents have responded less with reasoned debate than with emotional backlash. Those who disagree are shouted down as stalkers and assholes; their comments are deleted so that others may not see them.

Ignoring whether either side is right or wrong, what a terrible blow this has been to the credibility of the law’s proponents. Think how insecure they must be in their own assertions to react so defensively. How much confidence can than inspire in the rest of us?


“Revenge Porn” is pretty much what it sounds like. You’re in a relationship with someone, they let you have some nude pix, then there’s a breakup and you feel bitter and to get back at them you post their nudes online for the world to see. It’s a nasty, cruel thing to do. It’s not hard to imagine society thinking the practice to be so bad that it deserves to be punished. It’s easy, in other words, to see Revenge Porn as something that might be criminalized.

Some law professors have been pushing a model statute that would criminalize the practice. So far, no big deal. This is something that law professors are expected to do.

None appear to be professors or practitioners of criminal law, though. That’s not encouraging. Those reviewing the language will therefore probably want to keep an extra-sharp lookout for things like imprecise (or missing) mens rea, over-inclusive definitions, and conflated or confused concepts, etc. Nothing personal, just a normal precaution. You get this stuff all the time.

An extra wrinkle comes from the fact that posting a nude picture of your ex counts as “speech” for First Amendment purposes. And the First Amendment doesn’t let the government criminalize speech, except in very tightly controlled circumstances. Even the most awful, painful, hurtful and distressing speech (such as that of the Westboro Baptist “Church”) is not something that gets criminalized in this country.


This is a criminal law blog, not a First Amendment forum, and so it’d be somewhat off-topic to get into whether or not Revenge Porn is something that can be criminalized without running afoul of Freedom of Speech. But it is pertinent to note that the professors’ interpretation of the 1st Amendment here is not universal — and it is also relevant to examine how they have reacted to the ensuing disagreement.

To be fair, the law’s proponents are from academia, where disagreement (often) = bullying and criticism (sometimes) = hate speech. Where speech is generally not very well protected, in the first place. Where debate can be frowned upon and contrary points of view shouted down, removed from newspaper bins, at times even persecuted and hounded out. You ain’t seen petty vindictiveness until you’ve seen someone challenge the orthodoxy. You don’t get this from the better professoriate, of course — there are plenty of wonderful academics who welcome healthy debate, the chance to make their case or (as the case may be) get a new point of view. But there are plenty of others who prefer to point to their credentials and their peer-acceptance as proof of their correctness, and who get the most defensive when challenged.

You can usually tell which kind of academic you’re dealing with based on how they react to a contrary position. The ones who are pushing the Revenge Porn law, sadly, seem to be falling into the lesser camp so far. This is not good for their credibility.

So to the extent that First Amendment practitioners are in dispute with these particular academics, one might be inclined to conclude that the practitioners could perhaps be more likely to be correct.


But again, this is a criminal law blog. So how does the law look from the perspective of our criminal jurisprudence?

Not… not so great.

Here’s what the model statute says:

Whoever intentionally discloses a photograph, film, videotape, recording, or any other reproduction of the image of another person whose intimate parts are exposed or who is engaged in an act of sexual contact without that person’s consent, under circumstances in which the person has a reasonable expectation of privacy, commits a crime. A person who has consented to the capture or possession of an image within the context of a private or confidential relationship retains a reasonable expectation of privacy with regard to disclosure beyond that relationship.

(a) Definitions: For the purposes of this section,
1) “disclose” means sell, manufacture, give, provide, lend, trade, mail, deliver, transfer, publish, distribute, circulate, disseminate, present, exhibit, advertise or offer.
2) “intimate parts” means the naked genitals, pubic area, buttocks, or female adult nipple of the person.
3) “sexual contact” means sexual intercourse, including genital-genital, oral-genital, anal-genital, or oral-anal, whether between persons of the same or opposite sex.

(b) Exceptions:
1) This section shall not apply to lawful and common practices of law enforcement, the reporting of unlawful conduct, or legal proceedings.
2) This section shall not apply to situations involving voluntary exposure in public or commercial settings.


Holy cannoli, where to begin…?

The first problem is one of good old mens rea: It criminalizes disclosing the image without the subject’s consent, regardless of whether the actor knew about it one way or the other, or meant to do so without consent. It criminalizes the act where the subject had a reasonable expectation of privacy, regardless of whether the actor knew or had any reason to know it. The only mens rea here is whether the image was disclosed intentionally.

It’s a strict liability crime. Whenever you see that, huge red flags should be popping up in your head screaming “INJUSTICE AHEAD!” Sure it doesn’t criminalize accidentally dropping a photo out of your wallet, but it does criminalize showing it to people with the mistaken belief that your wife was cool with it — or without the knowledge that she had since changed her mind.

The second problem is one of conflated concepts. “Reasonable expectation of privacy” is a concept of Fourth Amendment law — of procedural rights, not of criminal liability. It is a term of art that has been defined in a fairly convoluted fashion over the years in such a way that the average layman couldn’t give you an accurate definition of the phrase if his life depended on it. His liberty would depend on it, here. The authors probably don’t mean for this phrase to have the meaning & baggage it carries in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. They just think it sounds good. And so there is inherent confusion in the statutory language. It is not clear what is actually meant here. And where there is vagueness in criminal law, where there is room for interpretation, there is room for cops and prosecutors to screw over the regular Joe. And if you don’t think that happens, you’re not getting out enough. When you see conflated concepts and room for interpretation, those red flags ought to be screaming at you even louder.

The third problem is one of unclear writing. Seriously, what do the “consent” and “reasonable expectation of privacy” clauses modify? Does this refer to images that are disclosed without consent, or taken without consent? Does this refer to images that were disclosed under circumstances where someone had an expectation of privacy, or taken under such circumstances? Is it criminalizing pictures of sexual acts that were nonconsensual? What about images that were taken by someone else, and then given to you by your ex? What about images that someone else forwarded to you, or you found online, and had no way of knowing whether they were consensually/privately taken or disclosed (whichever verb applies)? It can be read all of these different ways.

There is literally no way of knowing for sure what conduct is criminalized here. As written, it outlaws all kinds of behavior its authors probably didn’t mean to punish. It is overbroad as hell. You hear those red flags? Since when do flags scream? These are. Get some earplugs.

Strictly from a criminal perspective, this is a god-awful statute. It’s another one of those “think of the children” “take back the night” “let’s name a statute after the victim” kinds of legislation that pave an eight-lane superhighway to hell with their good intentions.


You want a statute that works? (Again, ignoring any First Amendment concerns.) Here’s one I banged out in court this morning while waiting for a case to be called. Zero research or deep thought went into it:



(A) “Private Sexual Image” = any media containing:

(i) an image taken in a non-public place, and in a non-commercial setting…

(ii) of a living person whose identity is readily ascertained from the contents of the image…

(iii) and depicting that person’s unclothed genitalia, buttocks, or female breasts, or depicting that person engaged in sexual intercourse, oral sex, manual-genital contact, or other such sexual behavior…

(iv) and which has not previously been “distributed” as that word is defined herein.


(B) “Distribute” = make publicly available by any means, including displaying in public or in a publicly-accessible medium, sharing via any communication or peer-to-peer arrangement, and any other method that makes a duplicate of the image available to others. Excluded are private acts of showing the image, without duplication or transmission, to individuals or small groups of people.



Any person who, with the intent to harass, shame, or defame another person:

(1) distributes an image he knows, or a reasonable person similarly situated would know, to be a Private Sexual Image of that other person;

(2) when he knows, or a reasonable person similarly situated would know, that he does so without the consent of that other person; and

(3) thereby does harass, shame or defame that other person

is guilty of a Fucking Nasty Crime.


Any person who, with the intent to harass, shame, or defame another person:

(1) distributes an image he knows, or a reasonable person similarly situated would know, to be a Private Sexual Image of that other person;

(2) when he knows, or a reasonable person similarly situated would know, that he does so without the consent of that other person

is guilty of a Nasty Crime.


Any person who

(1) intentionally distributes an image he knows, or a reasonable person similarly situated would know, to be a Private Sexual Image of another person;

(2) when he knows that, or recklessly disregards whether, he does so without the consent of that other person

is guilty of a Crime.



It shall be an affirmative defense to all of these crimes that, when the image in question was originally taken, it was reasonable to expect that it would later be viewed or possessed by people other than those who were a subject of the image, the person taking the image, and the person accused of distributing the image.

It shall be an affirmative defense to the Fucking Nasty crime that the image in question was transmitted to the accused via electronic or other means whereby the image could be “forwarded” or otherwise duplicated and transmitted to third parties.


There, quick and easy. There’s probably stuff to fix in there, as well, and again who knows if it’d pass constitutional muster on other grounds, but it’s hardly as overbroad or prone to injustice as the one those professors are promoting.

I bet you can do it even better. You are cordially invited to tear my suggestion apart in the comments, and provide your own language. Have at it!