That is a good question. Thank you for asking it. It may prove helpful to many readers.
Very early on in your defense, a private criminal attorney most likely attempts to think about how the prosecution might seek to prove culpability. One of the ways in which this is determined is usually to examine whether a so-called criminal “mind set” can be determined to have been a factor.
After that has been determined (or conjectured…meaning that the private criminal attorney will try to anticipate what will take place), it will then usually be the attorney’s job to attempt to establish a corresponding defense.
This necessity of establishing your frame of mind, or “mindset”, during the crime in question is not always a crucial part of defenses in all crimes, but it does play a huge role in many categories of crime.
Who Decides When Something Is A Crime?
Another great question! When the legislature in your state or Congress deems an act a crime, it is precisely because those august (or well-respected) bodies have determined that it is so. The arresting officer doesn’t determine that, and neither does the Judge. These laws have been voted on and passed, and protected by our system of checks and balances.
There is a legal term, criminal intent, which means that the crime was intended to be committed, and that is where the criminal frame of mind comes in.
In essence, if the perpetrator acted in a manner that is morally culpable, they were of the “mindset” which broke a law on purpose, or meant to.
But I Believe That I Was Just Careless. I Did Not Mean to Engage in the Act Which is a Crime. Do I Have an “Out”?
Are you talking about negligence committed while driving? That is a common example, and, yes, in a way you might have an “out” or a defense, as, for the most part, what is deemed run-of-the-mill carelessness does not constitute a crime. (You may still be required to compensate the victims for damages, and this would be handled in a civil court.)
However, if you are referring to negligence that’s not ordinarily committed, this behavior might be deemed criminal negligence. Too, sometimes it’s referred to as reckless behavior.
In this case, it’s a whole ‘nother ball game.
In this category of crime, the courts determine that a deffendant totally disregarded a potential risk which most people would not have ignored.
So, at this juncture, the courts have the job of determining whether you acted in a way that was criminal according to local community standards when disregarding this high risk.
OK. But What If I Had My Facts Wrong? What If I Totally Did Not Believe That The Incident Was “Morally Wrong”?
There are, indeed, instances where the defense might seek to demonstrate that the alleged perpetrator did not realize that he or she was committing an act which rendered the defendant morally blameworthy. Their sense of reality may have been skewed.
This is known as a “mistake of fact”.
So you may have done something which was wrong, but which you did not perceive to be a crime.
As a case in point, if someone is about to (you believe) harm you in some way, and you seek to defend yourself by striking him or her, this might be deemed as lacking the criminal mindset. In that case, as the victim, it turns out, was not about to harm you, the case might be presented as one in which you had your facts all wrong.
So If I’m Not Aware Of Some Law, Would That Be Enough of a Defense?
Not at all. In fact, this is not the same thing as a “mistake of fact”. This is termed a “mistake of law”. Since the branches of early government didn’t wish to have ignorance of the law as something to be promoted in any way, our system of laws is very clear to explain that, even if you did not intend to do something which was illegal, yet you did it, with intent, it is almost always the case that you would be found guilty.
Is This What The Media Means By Having A Defendant “Knowingly” Committing a Crime?
That would be an entirely different concept. Here’s why: There are some laws where perpetrators must “knowingly” act to break the law before they are deemed worthy of punishment. Certain laws involving the illegal trade of drugs, and the furnishing of such paraphernalia, in addition to the importing of such illegal drugs, for instance, require that there be knowledge of the illegality of the situation in question.
By way of an example, if an alleged perpetrator seeks to bring illegal drugs into this country, the courts will have to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that he or she did so KNOWING that he drug was illicit.